By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
MONTPELIER, Ohio — Rick Unger, a charter boat captain on Lake Erie, readily admits he knows little about the business of agriculture. He does, however, know about running a charter boat on the lake – a business that has been impacted by the return of toxic algae to Lake Erie.
“I used to be so proud of our lake,” he said. “I’d take people out on the boat and they’d have their bottled water. I’d dip water out of the lake and it would be the prettiest water you ever saw. Now it’s green slime.
“It’s a remarkable, resilient lake. It can clean itself up with a little help. Ohio cannot afford to lose this lake.”
Tourism in the Lake Erie region accounts for $10 billion a year, said Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Assoc. Included in that is more than $2 billion in wages, he noted, adding area tourism supports 114,000 jobs in the state. Signs posted on the lake’s beaches warning of a public health advisory don’t help the situation, he said.
“How do we get people to come if they see that at every stop?” he asked. “How does Ohio keep that tourism money coming back? How do we get people to come to Ohio and spend money if this is what they’re going to see?”
Unger spoke March 13 during the 11th annual Tri-State Conservation Farming Expo. He and several other speakers discussed the challenges facing Lake Erie.
Lake Erie holds 2 percent of all the water in the entire Great Lakes, but is home to 50 percent of all the fish, Unger said. The lake is shallow and is 240 miles long and 50 miles wide at its widest, he added.
The problem with toxic algae in Lake Erie is due in part to an increased presence of dissolved phosphorus, said Dave Baker, director emeritus of the National Center for Water Quality at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio.
While the presence of particulate phosphorus has decreased over the years as a result of agricultural erosion control programs, Baker noted cropland runoff of dissolved reactive phosphorus has increased dramatically over the last 15 years. These increases have been linked to the return of blue-green algae in the lake, he said.
“We were warned that dissolved phosphorus might go up, but we didn’t know how much,” he explained. “The amount of bio-available phosphorus going into Lake Erie has gone up and I think Lake Erie is showing the consequences of that.
“A nutrient broth is coming off our fields and moving out into the (Lake Erie) basin and supporting algal growth.”
The amount of phosphorus carried to Lake Erie from the Sandusky and Maumee rivers has risen in part because of increased fall and winter broadcasting of phosphorus fertilizers, Baker said. Producers often do that without timely incorporation, he added.
Other factors include increased tile drainage coupled with macropore flow that carries surface water to tile drains, he said. Phosphorus stratification in the soil associated with adoption of no-till and reduced till production is also a factor.
“Reducing tillage caused a decrease in the total amount of phosphorus in runoff, but it can increase dissolved phosphorus,” Baker explained. “We have to figure out what to do about that.”
Fixing the problem isn’t going to be easy, noted Dale Minyo, anchor for the Ohio Ag Network.
“This isn’t going to be a simple issue,” he said. “Figuring out where we are and where we’re going is difficult.
There are two ways to fix it – voluntary and mandatory. One we have more control of than the other.”
In the future, land rent contracts will come with nutrient management and weed control guarantees, Minyo predicted. “Will we deal with this situation on a voluntary or mandatory basis?” he asked. “The world is run by those who show up. Our challenge in agriculture is to speak up, show up and listen up.”
In 2010, harmful algae blooms were found on 10 lakes within Ohio and on Lake Erie, said John Kessler, deputy chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Soil and Water Resources. Last year, the 10 inland lakes fared much better, but Lake Erie saw an increase in algae bloom. The situation prompted an unprecedented response from Gov. John Kasich’s administration last year, Kessler noted.
“It caused state officials and community members to get an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality,” he said. “We have to find a way to restore that lake and work together to do it.”
Last year, cabinet officials heard presentations from experts, farmers and other stakeholders, and that information was delivered to the governor in February.
Kessler said he remembers fishing on Lake Erie in the late 1970s when the lake was coming back from pollution problems.
“The current problems are not just an ag producers’ problem,” he noted. “People who live in the city, who have lawns, golf courses and industry – people in every walk of life are involved. Let’s all work together to be a part of the second comeback of the lake.”