New focus on Lake Erie algae – is Detroit making the grade?

7 Sep 2011

Lake Erie - September 3, 2011 - note the blue algae at the west end

Algae in Lake Erie and Phosphorus in Detroit’s wastewater have been getting a lot of press lately. 

How are the two related and why is this important?  Phosphorus is a fertilizer and can be found in sewage and farm runoff.  Too much phosphorus will lead to the excessive growth of algae in some cases, the toxic blue-green algae.   Ordinary excess algae growth can choke even a large body of water like Lake Erie becaues the algae will die and fall to the bottom of the lake, decomposing and using up most of the oxygen in that part of the lake, causing uninhabitable “dead zones.”

Scientists and farm and ecological advocates have been pointing the finger at Detroit and other Michigan wastewater treatment plants along the Detroit River and Western Lake Erie, arguing that they need to treat wastewater more to reduce their Phosphorus output.

In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey, conducted a workshop on this issue , which focused on farm runoff as a key source of the Phosphorus being detected in Lake Erie and the 2011 Lakewide Management Plan for the Lake noted that climate change and warming waters also played a role in the reoccurrence of algal blooms in the lake.  Now, most recently, the Journal of the American Water Resources Association published an article that reached some interesting conclusions which raise as many questions as they answer. 

At  the end of the day, the study recognized the need for more and better data but noted that Phosphorus in Lake Erie came from multiple sources – 30 – 44% from so-called “point sources” like wastewater treatment plants (40% of which were on the Detroit River); and 33-44%  from agricultural sources. Despite all the finger pointing at Detroit, the largest tributary contributing Phosphorus was actually the Maumee River in Ohio (82.6% of this flow coming from farms), with the Detroit River a close second (with nearly 75% fo this flow originating with sewage-treatment plants).

This may predict future EPA regulation aimed at both ratcheting down discharge limits for waste treatment plants and heightened controls on farmers as well, meaning increased costs for sewer services and food. 

Leave a Comment to “New focus on Lake Erie algae – is Detroit making the grade?”

  1. Lake Erie 03. Dec, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    We are developing a branding and awareness campaign to help Save Lake Erie. Please visit and share the videos with others. This is such an important issue and with the economy and everything else going on, it’s very difficult to get people excited. We’re changing that.

    Thanks for your help!

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