Lake Erie: Spike in Phosphorous levels, rainfall leads to toxic algae bloom

Small growths of toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie took a turn for the worse this week after two weeks of heavy rainfall in Ohio spiked Phosphorus levels.

“You have all the conservation in place, then you get these large rainfalls and all of a sudden you have sediment transported into the lake,” Antosch said, who is the water quality analyst for the Ohio Farm Bureau.

“You can do everything right, but sometimes Mother Nature wins,” Antosch said.

Before the rainfall, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had worked hard to minimize the likelihood for a repeat of the algae blooms that had polluted the lake in seven of the past eight years, contaminating Toledo’s drinking water last year.

But nearly two straight weeks of daily rainfall caused a “significant spike in the cumulative total phosphorus load” that ran off of farm fields into the Maumee River and the western basin of Lake Erie.

“While an extensive severe bloom similar to 2011 is not projected to occur this year, our current estimates indicate that it may fall just below 2013 levels,” which was the second-most severe bloom since 2002, according to the NOAA report.

Low levels of microcystis cells have been detected in the lake’s western basin. These are toxins responsible for the forced shut-down of Toledo’s public drinking-water system last summer.

“Basically, what you’re getting there is an early season tracker, and indication of where things might go,” said Ben Sherman of NOAA. “The formal forecast won’t come out until July 9.”

Cumulative total phosphorus projections to June 22, compared to ranges from 2000-2014. Nutrient loads this year have surpassed those of 2013 and 2014, but remain below 2011.Chart courtesy of NOAA

Larry Antosch, a water quality analyst for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said he wasn’t surprised by the revised projections, considering the heavy rains over the past two weeks.

Farmers applied commercial fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen prior to planting corn and soybeans, he said.

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