August 5, 2014

Water Quality Concerns in the Great Lakes. Again.

by Heather Falconer

Since the 1970s, when limnologist David Schindler and his colleagues began actively publishing the results of their work in the Experimental Lakes Area, there has been conclusive evidence that a steady flow of excess phosphorus in water systems spells disaster. Schindler and his team showed through extensive experiments that phosphorus is the nutrient responsible for regulating growth in aquatic systems – increase the phosphorus and you increase the amount of plant growth (mainly algae).

And yet, controls on the emission of phosphorus into the environment have been slow to implement.

Since 1972, when the US Clean Water Act was restructured and expanded, the Environmental Protection Agency has been regulating point-source pollution (e.g. waste-water pipes discharging directly into waterways), but it’s clear there is still much to be done in the area of non-point pollution: pollution from farm run-off, leaking septic systems, over-fertilized lawns, etc.

Case in point: Lake Erie.

The fourth largest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie covers an area of approximately 9,900 square feet and acts as a border to the states of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. The freshwater lake serves as a drinking water resource for major towns and cities all along its perimeter, as well as providing hydroelectric power in Ontario and Niagara Falls.

But for decades, scientists and environmental groups have been waving a red flag pointing to issues in the water quality of Lake Erie. Non-point pollution is leaching phosphorus into the water body and causing eutrophication (you can learn more about eutrophication in our module on The Phosphorus Cycle).  Not only are algae reproducing abundantly with this influx of nutrients and choking out other plants and animals, the type of algae growing – microcystin – is particularly poisonous to humans and pets.

"Toxic Algae Bloom in Lake Erie" by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon - NASA Earth Observatory. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Toxic Algae Bloom in Lake Erie” by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon – NASA Earth Observatory. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In recent weeks, the city of Toledo, Ohio, reported unsafe concentrations of microcystin in samples from the waste water treatment plants and subsequently placed a ban of drinking tap water. According to many scientists, algal blooms such as this will only increase over time if regulations are not put into place. But those regulations have a strong nemesis in the The Fertilizer Institute (lobbyists for the fertilizer industry), who have concerns about government regulation and its impacts on large-scale farming, and large-scale fertilizer production.

Areas around the Great Lakes are not the only ones in jeopardy, however. Eutrophication in water bodies has been a problem for over half a century throughout the United States and other countries, and is only growing worse with changes in climate. That isn’t to say it cannot be reversed, however.

With some simple efforts, we can all take steps to protect our water supplies and reduce non-point pollution:

  • If you own a home, make sure that your septic system is intact (not leaking into the water supply).
  • Avoid over-fertilizing lawns and gardens (or avoid fertilizing in general). A little goes a long way.
  • Reduce the amount of packaging in your shopping. Those plastic bags and cartons require manufacturing, which creates waste-water often rich in nutrients.
  • Use low- or no-phosphate detergents for cleaning.
  • Phone or write to your government representatives and let them know that you are concerned about water quality.

To Learn More

Read The Phosphorus Cycle to learn about the role phosphorus plays in our environment and the work of Dr. Schindler et al.

Read a New York Times article on the water drinking ban in Toledo, Ohio.

Read the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Urgent Call to Action” on phosphorus and non-point pollution.

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.