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The cost of Lake Erie's ongoing environmental disaster

Posted at 7:30 AM, Aug 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-02 12:58:36-04

People are warned to avoid touching it, water plants are spending tax dollars to fix it — the harmful algae bloom that ravages Lake Erie is back this year, and it’s expected to be twice the size as what we saw last year. It’s an ongoing environmental disaster that reached crisis stage in 2014 when hundreds of thousands of people had their water shutoff because of toxins that come with the familiar highlighter green water.

“You’re going to be spending more money to treat the water,” said Ed Verhamme, a project engineer at Limnotech. “Tourism is impacted causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses over the course of years.”

Verhamme watches the bloom closely. This week he launched his company’s research vessel from Toledo to reach a buoy equipped with sensors and data-transmitters that allow scientists to track the bloom in real-time. In addition to long-term research, that data helps water plants change the treatment they give water before it reaches your tap.

“Yes, that’s definitely more expensive,” said Barry Laroy, the City of Monroe Water Director. “As we see improving technology to remove contaminants it requires treatment plans to upgrade. It’s a challenge and there’s no other way to put it, we strive to keep the water safe for customers.”

Laroy said that the cost to clean water during the harmful algae bloom season goes up. It takes more chemicals and more money. The state also chips in a large amount of money for upgrading facilities to keep up with the growing needs to cleanse the water, meaning all taxpayers are being affected regardless if you live close to Lake Erie.

Going one step further, the United States has a bi-national agreement to cut down on the nutrients being put into the lake that cause the bloom to explode in size. They haven’t me those goals, in large part, due to agriculture operations. Phosphorous fuels the HAB, and it’s used heavily in ag businesses.

This year could have been worse, the same torrential rains in June that prevented farmers from planting also carried fertilizer runoff into streams and rivers that feed into Lake Erie — since fewer could plant, less phosphorous was dumped. However, when you get onto the lake near Toledo and see the green water you quickly realize that it extends to Monroe and close to the Detroit River. The idea that it could be “worse” is hard to understand.

Verhamme called it the “largest environmental disaster” in terms of sheer size happening in the United States, right now.

“It’s like a slow moving tornado that comes every year and ravages the lake,” he said. “It causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage over multiple years when you think of tourism and quality of life.”

In recent years the algae begins to appear in June or July and can have lasting effects into late-fall. On the worst days it looks like a thick lime green paint sits atop the water, while large hunks of algae stream onto area shores — beaches close, boating companies lose business and water plants start spending more money as they enact their “cyanotoxin management plan.” When winds kick up it can clear up large swaths of the algae, but it doesn’t go away. Often, it extends deeper into the water waiting to resurface on a calm, sunny day.

“My family and friends will say, ‘if it was really that bad politicians would be doing more about it,’” said Kellen Smith, a engineer and intern with Limnotech who took part in the maintenance mission this week. “I’m like, ‘No, that’s the problem, that’s what I’m trying to get you guys to see.’”

Smith grew up in Detroit and was aware of environmental problems. Taking part in research on Lake Erie has her sounding alarms now that she’s seen what is playing out in front of her eyes.

While it may not be public knowledge to all, the government is working to fix the issue — it just isn’t happening overnight. This summer Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive to build on goals established in the “Lake Erie Domestic Action Plan.” The goal: achieve a healthier lake.