Western Lake Erie’s algae bloom is in full swing – and the water is a sickly green.
At Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo, Ohio, the lake looks like it’s covered in paint. Thick lines of scum swirl around as the sun beats down.
Don McGee, a charter boat captain, takes a group of students and reporters to the middle of the lake to describe what’s floating around. He’s fished Lake Erie for over 30 years, and says it isn’t going to get healthy overnight – but more needs to be done.
"We can study the lake and study the lake and study the lake, all the studies do is study," said McGee. "We know a lot of the things that are happening, what’s happening, why it’s happening. We need to figure out how to get that accomplished quicker."
The boat trip was part of a Lake Erie tour, a closer look at the algae bloom problem and some of the people tackling it.
They include Jerry Whipple, a 71-year old farmer who has made changes to limit nutrients like phosphorus from running into streams that lead to the lake. Whipple is unlike many other farmers – as soon as he took over his father’s property in 1978, he began implementing best management practices to reduce nutrient runoff.
“I’m always aware of what we put on the ground,” said Whipple.
Others on the trip represented organizations that use wetlands to filter nutrients out of water before they end up in the lake.
Harmful algae blooms plague western Lake Erie summer after summer. The blooms shut down beaches, and can threaten drinking water and cause illnesses.
Last week was full of meetings and public hearings related to Lake Erie’s algae problem. The state of Ohio held hearings on its draft Domestic Action Plan, which is out for public comment until Sept. 25.
As part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, states bordering Lake Erie must create a plan to meet a 2025 goal to reduce phosphorus in the western basin by 40 percent. By next year, the state plans will be compiled into one U.S. plan. Canada will have a plan as well.
Each state is at a different point with its action plan – Pennsylvania, for example, ended its public comment period in June. Ohio’s plan includes new programs to reconnect wetlands, establish a collection of best management practices, and examine the impact of sewer overflows.
Critics say Ohio’s plan is heavy on proposed actions, and light on actual projections as to how the actions will reduce phosphorus.
“Looking at that list of actions, it reads like a grocery list – but there’s no recipe for how it all comes together in meeting that reduction target,” the National Wildlife Federation’s Gail Hesse said.
In the past, the International Joint Commission, a binational group that helps regulate the Great Lakes, has called for tougher regulations. Yet states including Ohio continue to rely more on voluntary programs.
The health of the lake even had McGee thinking of leaving Ohio for Florida. But, he said, “I couldn’t do it.
“I couldn’t leave the lake – that’s how much I love it.”