Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zombie Lake Erie is Dying Again

Declared dead in the 1970s, brought back to life by the environmental movement it did much to inspire, Lake Erie is once again expiring, killed by industrial agriculture. Specifically, phosphorous from synthetic fertilizers, which the aforementioned environmental movement never gained the clout to regulate. After having been reduced by two-thirds with various buffering and conservation practices, phosphorous levels in Lake Erie are, according to an Ohio State University expert, “back up to when it was considered a dead lake.”

The expert, Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory, was speaking this week at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference in Erie, Pennsylvania. He did not have to explain to the conference why the phosphorous causes problems — it stimulates the growth of algae, some of which produce deadly toxins, all of which create dense mats that kill virtually everything else in the water.

Nor did he have to explain where it comes from; fertilizer, mainly, plus some commercial detergents and some waste-water treatments. What he and others are trying to explain is why the phosphorous/algae situation has got so much worse so fast? [I reported on the problem a few months ago in Losing the War on Pond Scum]

The emerging answer is that global climate change, that ubiquitous threat multiplier, is at work here as well. It gets warmer earlier in the year on Lake Erie now, and stay warmer longer, giving the algae more time to multiply. “We are seeing blooms as early as April and as late as October,” says Reutter. But much bigger contributors, he says, are the bigger, more frequent storms and heavier rainfalls of recent years, which have been washing ever more phosphorous into the lake.

(Here’s a mystery never explained to me: virtually every ounce of phosphorous that washes into our waters was bought to stimulate crops, and therefore its loss represents a very real economic loss to the practitioners of industrial agriculture. Why have they not fixed this? Is it so much easier to get more subsidies than to take measures to stop throwing money away?) more