As predicted by scientists, the first blue-green swirls of toxic algae blooms surfaced mid-July in the waters near the shores of Lake Erie between Monroe, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio. Harmful algae blooms are the biological consequence of a riptide of nutrients allowed by lax regulations of runoff from the land – particularly farms. These nutrients are responsible for some of the nation’s worst water pollution. Despite the rising number of harmful blooms and the risks to human and animal health, as well as recreational economies, the nutrients coming from land runoff – especially phosphorus – have yet to be properly regulated in the last 50 years.
Governments on the local, state, provincial, and national levels in both Canada and the United States have been collaborating with science agencies, universities, and nonprofit groups alike to develop effective responses to the blooms. The federal government spent more than $400 million over the years to support water quality monitoring networks and comprehensive studies on the sources of contamination and their effects. These collaborations have generated several commitments from both countries to reduce nutrient discharges alongside plans to achieve them, however, scientists from Circle of Blue, an organization dedicated to investigating and reporting on water crises across the globe, found that most of these plans are not working.
In the 1960’s, Lake Erie was declared ecologically dead. Lawmakers came together to pass the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act, which worked in tandem with Circle of Blue in order to clear Lake Erie and other waterways of harmful algae blooms. Initially after enactment, for the first 20 years, the two laws did just that, and Lake Erie recovered from its previously declared “dead” status. But now, according to assessments by five federal agencies, Lake Erie is among the country’s most visible examples of fouled waters by toxic blooms.
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surveyed more than 49,000 lakes across the country and found that 30 percent contained toxins produced by blooms. In 2021, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research organization, tallied 476 harmful blooms across 41 states, which is five times higher since 2010. From 2017 to 2019, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention counted 321 emergency department visits related to harmful algae bloom exposure. In 2019, five years after a toxic bloom shut down Toledo’s drinking water plant for three days, a harmful bloom overwhelmed 650 miles of the Ohio River.
In Michigan, the number of reports about blooms received by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has increased six-fold since 2010. Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair near Detroit, Lake Macatawa in Holland, and Lake Allegan on the Kalamazoo River are all suffering from summer algae blooms – with blooms beginning to appear in Lake Superior as well, which has the least developed shorelines amongst the Great Lakes. This is frustrating for the Great Blue Circle, as research shows the ending of these blooms is achievable, especially when considering the country has done it before. But with modern day lawmakers’ timid responses to environmental issues these days, these blooms will likely increase and spread across the country until more substantial efforts are made to combat the growing crisis.