April 13, 2018
Data Shows Lake Erie Impairment Declaration Was Justified in 2010
By Tom Henry
Although Ohio has joined Michigan in declaring the open waters of western Lake Erie as impaired, new data shows there was scientific justification to do that as far back as 2010 — four years before the Toledo water crisis.
The data was generated for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency after the U.S. EPA told the state agency back in January to rethink the Kasich administration’s steadfast refusal over many years to declare the open water as impaired. The administration’s reversal on that front undoubtedly will mean unprecedented controls on agriculture and tighter sewage regulations.
Tim Davis, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration algae researcher in Ann Arbor, told attendees of the annual Lake Erie Foundation conference that the science — though not developed until a few weeks ago — shows the lake’s open water should have been declared impaired in 2010.
The conference was held Thursday at W.W. Knight Nature Preserve.
Mr. Davis explained a complicated formula he and other algae researchers were asked to develop by the Ohio EPA once it looked like the U.S. EPA was headed toward defeat in the lawsuit brought against it by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center on behalf of Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie.
The formula has a metric scientists developed for determining years in which algal blooms grow particularly strong. Once at least two years of excessive blooms have been documented over a consecutive six-year period, then the impairment declaration should have been made. That was back in 2010, said Mr. Davis, also a Bowling Green State University algae researcher.
Joining Mr. Davis in developing that protocol were BGSU algae colleagues George Bullerjahn and Mike McKay, as well as Tom Bridgeman, University of Toledo algae specialist and newly named director of UT’s Lake Erie Center; Justin Chaffin, who heads algae research for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, and others. The work was done in collaboration with the Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA, Mr. Davis said.
“It was the lawsuit that caused this [research project],” Mr. Davis added. “Even though they [the Ohio EPA] weren’t defendants, they were getting heat from the U.S. EPA.”
Lake Erie has more than 200 types of algae. Most of it — especially that known as diatoms — are healthy and contribute to the food chain.
Even small blooms of the bad stuff — microcystis and other forms of cyanobacteria classified as harmful algal blooms because of the toxins they produce — are considered normal.
But the report by Mr. Davis and others shows five of the last six years have produced blooms well beyond what scientists believe is acceptable, and that Lake Erie has had unacceptably large and toxic blooms two-thirds of the time since 2002.
Based on the formula, the absolute earliest Lake Erie could have its impairment declaration scientifically justified for removal would be 2023, Mr. Davis said.
“But that would be highly unlikely,” he added.
Many conference attendees who have followed algae issues for years were annoyed it took the Kasich administration so long to come around but weren’t surprised to learn the science shows the declaration should have been made eight years sooner.