Moving Goalposts: The Challenge of Lake Erie Algal Blooms Part 3: Things We Know but Can't Change

Part 3: Things We Know but Can’t Change

For immediate release: July 24, 2017

Jessy J. Sielski, Deputy Public Information Officer, MDARD

In part three of this four-part blog series about the algal blooms in Lake Erie, the author discusses some of the challenges surrounding Lake Erie that…well…just are what they are. (Read Part 1 HereRead Part 2 Here.)

In the first two installments of this blog series on algal blooms in Lake Erie, we looked at the ongoing situation; discussed how old infrastructure (e.g., drainage tiles) needs to be addressed; posed open-ended questions about how (and to what extent) dissolved reactive phosphorus, changing weather, dredging, and invasive species impact Lake Erie; and took a look back at how some soil and nutrient management plans once hailed as the solution to Lake Erie’s problems might now be contributing to the ever-evolving problem.

For the most part, the factors that have been addressed so far have been issues that will, can, or could be solved with enough information or resources. In this installment, we take a brief look at some of the factors that make Lake Erie and its Western Basin naturally problematic.

One of the things that makes Michigan an excellent place for growing and producing food is its proximity to the Great Lakes. One of the problems with growing and producing food in Michigan is its proximity to the Great Lakes. And the unique features of the Western Lake Erie Basin make it especially beneficial—and especially challenging.

Map showing the Great Black Swamp that covered Ohio

As many know, a 1,500-mile stretch of land beginning at the basin and extending all the way through Ohio and into Indiana was once known as the Great Black Swamp. In the early 1800s, this glacially-fed wetland was a perfect environment for mosquitoes—and, therefore, endemic malaria. To help address this problem, states began draining the swamp, a process that took nearly 40 years and ultimately led to the rise of drainage tiles in the region in the mid-19th century. This resulted in the creation of thousands of acres of exceptionally fertile agricultural land, as well as dry land that could be used for the development of homes, businesses, hospitals, and many other things.

In addition to the location of these agricultural operations (which obviously can’t just be picked up and moved somewhere else), Lake Erie itself poses many challenges. For starters, the Western Lake Erie Basin is shallow and relatively warm. For perspective, Lake Superior can reach depths of 1,333 feet. Lake Erie, even at its deepest point, is a mere 210 feet; and the Western Lake Erie Basin itself is only about 40 feet at its deepest point. In the summer, the water temperature of Lake Erie can be as high as 74 degrees in summer months. And as we saw in 2014, heavy rainfall can have a tremendous impact on a shallow body of water like this, regardless of improved agricultural practices.

“It’s just a hard truth about Lake Erie,” said Joe Kelpinski, manager of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, a voluntary program for Michigan farmers. “There are historical records of algal blooms dating back to the 1800s. They weren’t pervasive, and they didn’t happen every year, but it’s just indicative of that body of water. It’s shallow, warm, and fertile. It’s the perfect environment for algae to grow.”

Another reality about Lake Erie is that it receives water deposits from everything that surrounds it. As Jim Johnson, director of MDARD’s Environmental Stewardship Division explains, “Lake Erie is just in a spot where everything flows to. Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Canada, and even the waters of Lake Superior, Lake St. Clair and others all flow into Lake Erie. So, when we have sudden, heavy rainfalls, it can hit the basin very hard. Farmers can do a lot of things on their land in terms of best management practices, but there’s not much they can do about climate and rainfall.”

So, even as wastewater treatment plants continue to modernize equipment and processes, the state continues to ratchet up its environmental standards, and agricultural operations throughout Michigan and other Lake Erie states continue to implement the best management practices available at this time, they know that the only way to fight an immovable object is to become an unstoppable force.

Watch for Part 4 of this blog series, “Things We’ve Always Known,” in which the author discusses the current strategy for solving the algal bloom problem in Lake Erie, as well as some criticisms of that plan.