Tide turning in battle against Lake Erie algae

By Marion Renault The Columbus Dispatch  •  Sunday November 13, 2016 11:50 AM
A satellite photo from 2011 shows a giant algae bloom on Lake Erie. It is the smallest Great Lake but supports a billion-dollar angling and boating industry.
Scientists warn against reading too much into this year’s slight improvement in the battle against harmful Lake Erie algae. But, they say, there is reason for optimism about the future.

Moderate blooms — after last year’s record-setting algae growth — were the result of an unusually dry spring, not a decline in the phosphate runoff that feeds the growth of cyanobacteria that plagues lakes and rivers in the state’s western water basin each summer.

And despite strides in research efforts, water monitoring and efforts by farmers to reduce runoff, considerable work remains to stem toxic algae, experts say.

“We’re going to see these blooms recur,” said George Bullerjahn, a biology professor at Bowling Green State University. “We can improve this over the next decade, but we’ve got to be patient.”

As part of an agreement between the United States and Canada, Ohio pledged to help reduce the amount of phosphate entering Lake Erie by 40 percent in the next 10 years.

Environmentalists say that goal is feasible. More than 130 researchers at 10 Ohio universities cite several tasks to reach it:

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Phosphorus tax debated at Lake Erie algae conference

“Everyone adjusts to prices,” Kevin Egan, UT associate professor of economics, told 300 attendees at the Friday event inside downtown Toledo’s SeaGate Convention Centre, some of them farmers. “You can put on all of the fertilizer you want. You’ll just have to pay more for it.”

Mr. Egan, who said he grew up on a small Iowa farm, did not propose a specific amount. But he said the general concept of using the laws of supply and demand is less intrusive than passing more regulations and having government officials try to go farm-to-farm for inspections.

He suggested money generated by any tax or fee be returned to farmers in the form of a rebate, adding that those who use phosphorus most wisely would come out ahead.

“A fertilizer fee is the least intrusive way,” Mr. Egan said. “There are just not enough economists like me who will stand up and say so.”

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