Meet the Invasive Pest Fueling Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Bloom

This September 23, 2011 photo shows a man holding a handful of Zebra mussels near Kingston, Canada, which have invaded Lake Ontario. Zebra mussels from the Caspian Sea, introduced to North America by accident, are becoming a veritable plague releasing toxic chemicals into the Great Lakes, Canadian biologists say. The mussels hitch-hiked to Canada on the ballasts of cargo ships arriving on the continent in 1986. And in the past two decades the thumbnail-sized creatures have spread and are found in more than a third of the Great Lakes. AFP PHOTO / Kilian FICHOU
National Journal
Jason Plautz
Aug. 6, 2014, 1 a.m.

Tox­ic al­gae is wreak­ing hav­oc in north­ern Ohio, but it’s not do­ing it alone.

A tox­ic bloom in Lake Erie — which forced the city of Toledo to turn off its tap wa­ter for two days this week­end — was ex­acer­bated by an­oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al calam­ity: hordes of in­vas­ive mus­sels that plague the Great Lakes eco­sys­tem.

The mol­lusks, known as zebra and quagga mus­sels, ar­rived from East­ern Europe in the late 1980s by latch­ing onto boats and have since spread throughout the Great Lakes.

And, in terms of wa­ter qual­ity, the crit­ters are a re­verse fil­ter: They re­move sed­i­ment and food particles out of the wa­ter, sap­ping the re­sources nat­ive mus­sels and fish need.

But they leave the dan­ger­ous ele­ments in place. The in­vaders are picky and don’t ab­sorb tox­ic forms of al­gae known as mi­cro­cystis, leav­ing it to col­lect in the harm­ful blue-green al­gae blooms that col­lect on the sur­face.

“It’s ba­sic­ally spit­ting the stuff out,” ex­plained Alan Stein­man, dir­ect­or of the An­nis Wa­ter Re­sources In­sti­tute at Michigan’s Grand Val­ley State Uni­versity. “Now the blue-greens in the wa­ter column have very few com­pet­it­ors “¦ and they bloom.”

That’s what’s hap­pen­ing in Lake Erie, and this week­end, the trouble came to Toledo. More than 400,000 res­id­ents were without wa­ter un­til Monday morn­ing after a tox­in linked to an algal bloom was de­tec­ted in an in­take sys­tem. The ban was lif­ted on Monday, but the al­gae prob­lem isn’t go­ing away — blooms will linger throughout the sum­mer and have been stead­ily mak­ing a comeback in Lake Erie for years.

The mus­sels aren’t the only factor be­hind the tox­ic al­gae. The blooms them­selves are the res­ult of an ex­cess of phos­phor­ous in the lake, due in large part to run­off of fer­til­izer from farms and oth­er ag­ri­cul­tur­al sources, as well as from sep­tic sys­tems and cit­ies (the blooms grow es­pe­cially quickly in shal­low Lake Erie, es­pe­cially on its west­ern end). Ex­cess­ive rain and storms linked to cli­mate change have also been fingered as cul­prits in the re­cent rise in al­gae blooms, which were pre­val­ent in the 1960s and ‘70s un­til the Clean Wa­ter Act forced the cleanup of some pol­lu­tion sources.

But the pres­ence of the mus­sels ex­acer­bates the oth­er factors, said Marc Smith, policy dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion’s Great Lakes of­fice.

“While all this nu­tri­ent run­off is hap­pen­ing, the mus­sels really stir things up and double down the prob­lem,” Smith said. “There’s no easy an­swer to this.”

The Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion has pre­dicted that Lake Erie will ex­per­i­ence a “sig­ni­fic­ant” bloom this year, al­though it will be smal­ler than one that cropped up in 2013 and a re­cord-set­ting bloom in 2011 that covered 1,900 square miles of the lake.

The thick green cy­anobac­teria won’t just pose a danger to wa­ter sup­ply; the blooms also block out light and can kill off plant and an­im­al life in the lake.

They come at a time when the in­va­sion of mus­sels is stir­ring up trouble in the Great Lakes — and it’s spread­ing fast. They’ve been de­tec­ted as far away as Cali­for­nia and Texas and it’s es­tim­ated that there are more than 950 tril­lion (with a “t”) in Lake Michigan alone. It’s a con­cen­tra­tion so high that videos have shown them stacked as much as 5 feet high.

That has the po­ten­tial to upend the eco­sys­tem by rob­bing fish of the nu­tri­ents they need, soak­ing up plank­ton and tiny plants be­fore they can reach the nat­ive spe­cies. Iron­ic­ally that’s left lakes clear­er, but has also con­trib­uted to a die-off of fish and spe­cies up the food chain. A 2011 NWF re­port that looked at the “boom and bust” of the Great Lakes eco­sys­tem found that 95 per­cent of the bio­mass of prey fish in Lake Hur­on had dropped 95 per­cent in 15 years, which in turn left big­ger fish like sal­mon with little to eat. In Lake Michigan, the pop­u­la­tion of the tiny shrimp at the bot­tom of the food chain had dropped 94 per­cent in a dec­ade.

And the mus­sels can also gath­er and clog up the in­take tanks for wa­ter sys­tems and in­dus­tri­al sites, which has caused hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in dam­age in the Great Lakes re­gion. A re­cent series in the Mil­wau­kee Journ­al-Sen­tinel looked at the im­pact of in­vas­ive spe­cies across the Great Lakes.

With no nat­ur­al pred­at­ors or known way to erad­ic­ate the mus­sels, much of the re­sponse has been fo­cused on simply stop­ping the mus­sels from spread­ing any fur­ther. The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency has ad­vised boat­ers trav­el­ling in wa­ters that may have been af­fected to be aware of any mus­sels latch­ing on and us­ing a heated spray to ward them off.

Sci­ent­ists haven’t yet found a way to erad­ic­ate the mus­sels without im­pact­ing the broad­er food sys­tem, and their vast reach makes a tar­geted ap­proach dif­fi­cult.

Even solv­ing the mus­sel prob­lem isn’t likely to fix the rise of al­gae blooms, giv­en the myri­ad factors that have con­trib­uted to their growth. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have long sought more con­trol over ag­ri­cul­tur­al run­off to re­duce the amount of phos­phor­ous seep­ing in­to fresh­wa­ter bod­ies, a call that’s been re­newed in the days after the Toledo in­cid­ent.

And Pres­id­ent Obama last month signed the Harm­ful Algal Blooms and Hyp­ox­ia Re­search and Con­trol Amend­ments Act, which au­thor­ized $20.5 mil­lion to NOAA from 2014 to 2018 to study harm­ful blooms and look at solu­tions in fresh­wa­ter.

Smith said the even­tu­al solu­tion would have to be a com­pre­hens­ive ef­fort that con­sidered all of the causes, which in turn could clean up a num­ber of wa­ter prob­lems.

“To ad­dress in­vas­ive spe­cies without con­sid­er­ing farm­land or wa­ter qual­ity won’t work. We know everything has to be taken in­to ac­count to­geth­er,” he said. “There’s a lot of money out there that could be util­ized, but it has to be stra­tegic and not just ran­dom acts of con­ser­va­tion.”

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