After having a federal scientist take them on a visual tour of algae outbreaks around the world, some 300 people attending a major Toledo-based conference on the subject settled in for a day full of presentations by farmers and other agricultural experts trying to find ways to cooperatively address the public health nemesis.
Ohio Sea Grant and OSU Stone Laboratory director Chris Winslow at Understanding Harmful Algal Blooms: State of the Science, held Thursday at the Stranahan Theater.
The event, Understanding Harmful Algal Blooms: State of the Science, was the third-annual program of its kind since the 2014 Toledo water crisis. Held each year at the Stranahan Theater & Great Hall, the gatherings have been organized by Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others.
Peter Kleinman, a scientist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Pennsylvania, opened the conference on Thursday with an overview of attempts to combat toxin-producing algae anywhere from the Netherlands to Australia. His presentation underscored how the scum that has plagued western Lake Erie is merely a symptom of a global problem that has been steadily on the rise as Earth’s climate warms and its land use becomes more complicated, with more people and more intensive farming practices.
Of the hundreds of types of algae across the world, many are good and contribute to the food chain that support fish. The so-called “harmful algal blooms” are actually outbreaks of bacteria that look and grow like algae. Called cyanobacteria because of their bluish-green hue, they garner most attention from public health experts and others because of their ability to produce toxins that can kill people and their pets, such as dogs.
The event was held the day after a free public screening of a 2017 film, Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer, was shown at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Peristyle. About 900 people attended. The film highlighted lesser-known research, including potential connections to Lou Gehrig’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Agriculture has for years defended its practices, although a mass balance report in April by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency shows that 88 percent of the algae-forming phosphorus and 89 percent of the nitrogen coming down the Maumee River and into western Lake Erie comes from nonpoint sources.
The most common is agricultural runoff. Similarly high percentages were found at other Lake Erie tributaries. Phosphorus is the nutrient that largely determines the size of algal blooms, while nitrogen greatly influences their toxicity.
Terry McClure, a fifth-generation farmer who owns and operates McClure Farms in Paulding County, was one of four speakers on a panel dedicated to farmers’ perspective. He also is one of about 30 who offered their sites for “edge-of-field” studies that OSU and the USDA has been doing to collect runoff data and see what farm practices work best.
“When we talk about the practices that need to be accomplished, I just don't see any way this can be anything but voluntary,” Mr. McClure said, referring to the vastness of the Maumee River watershed and its more than 4 million acres.
A lot that gets lost in the policy debates over regulations are the relationships and leadership within the farming community, said Mr. McClure, who said it “wasn’t that long ago that we were literally farming the ditches.”
He said peer pressure leads farmers to embrace better practices more than people might realize.
“The best thing we can do is use peer pressure,” Mr. McClure said. “It's amazing what a well-respected farmer with one or two comments can accomplish.”
Bill Myers, owner of Myers Farms in Oregon and a longtime member of the Lucas County Farm Bureau who was elected to the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s board of directors in 2015, said he feels especially obligated to be a good land steward because he farms 2,300 acres a mile from Lake Erie.
One of the easiest things farmers can do is get periodic soil tests that will help them better choose the right nutrients for their fields. He said he regularly tests a third of his land on a more site-specific grid layout.
“It’s not that complicated,” Mr. Myers said. “It doesn’t have to be a 280-page document.”
He agreed an underrated source of pollution is what often isn’t seen, the nutrients that come out of underground tiles that are needed in most parts of northwest Ohio to help drain fields and avoid flooding after heavy rain.
“I've seen that land when it doesn't drain. The dirt that runs off it is like chocolate milk,” Mr. Myers said.
Even in the Great Lakes region, algal blooms are appearing in areas they weren’t seen in the past — such as the Apostle Islands in western Lake Superior, a body of water so deep and cold that algal blooms are considered rare.
In addition to a nationally publicized bloom there in August, there have been four other blooms since the first one was discovered on July 15, 2012, Gina LaLiberte, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources scientist, told the audience.
That outbreak, as well as a greater frequency in major storms, continues to raise concerns about how Earth’s warming climate exacerbates algal blooms.
Chris Winslow, Ohio Sea Grant and OSU Stone Lab director, said 70 to 80 percent of the phosphorus loading each summer has come from the heaviest 10 percent of rain events, adding that algal blooms are “clearly a water-management issue” as well as a nutrient-reduction issue.
“We still need to arm those water-treatment plant operators with the tools they need,” Mr. Winslow said. “We can't have another Toledo water crisis.”
Jane Frankenberger, a Purdue University agricultural and biological engineering scientist, said one of the newer research efforts involves having farmers convert a small portion of their land, about 6 percent, into a drainage-retention pond. That would allow nutrient-rich water to be recycled back onto their fields without ever reaching a public body of water to help algae grow.
The costs and complexity of such ponds is unknown. But Ms. Frankenberger said they appear to show more promise than underground drainage-control structures designed to temporarily hold water back from ditches. Those structures are being installed properly, many with government support. But she said she is finding little evidence of them being used regularly and maintained properly.
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