Rain could affect summer algal bloom

Tom Henry, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·5 min read

May 3—Rainfall over the next several weeks — particularly that which falls this week — will greatly determine how large of an algal bloom forms this summer in western Lake Erie.

Ask Rick Stumpf what the outlook is at this precise moment in time and he'll say the bloom might not be so bad.

"We are currently running a bit below normal on the load into Lake Erie," Mr. Stumpf, the Washington-area scientist in charge of the annual bloom forecasts, told The Blade in regard to algae-forming phosphorus concentrations in the Maumee River, the Sandusky River, and other area waterways flowing into western Lake Erie.

But he takes no comfort in the early rainfall numbers, pointing out that nature has a knack for changing things overnight.

Mr. Stumpf, an oceanographer in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Silver Spring, Md., said he's particularly interested in the frequency and intensity of rain that falls this week as two weather systems come through the region.

For a decade now, he has made annual bloom forecasts in consultation with scientists from several area universities, including the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and Heidelberg University, the latter of which has had its National Center for Water Quality Research collect water samples from area streams since 1974. The samples are analyzed for algae-forming phosphorus and nitrogen, two of the most common farm fertilizers.

It's not just rainfall totals.

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A lot depends on how frequent and intense the storms are. As scientists have explained in the past, frequent and intense storms lead to more saturated soil which, in turn, leads to more farm runoff into streams. Much of that is through underground drainage tiles, not just the sediment that flows off the surface.

Scientists have further explained that March 1 to July 31 is the most crucial window of time, and that intense, frequent storms on the front end tend to impact water quality more than those which come after summer sets in.

"We will start our 'early season projections' by May 11, and we will have good sense then," Mr. Stumpf said.

Scientists have said that demand for earlier and more precise bloom forecasting came in response to Toledo's 2014 algae-driven water crisis, when an algal toxin in western Lake Erie known as microcystin breached the city's Collins Park Water Treatment Plant and got into the distribution lines that serve nearly 500,000 metro area residents. They were told their tap water was unsafe to drink for nearly three days.

In the latest of several efforts to keep nutrients in the farm soil, the Ohio Department of Agriculture is making another $8 million available over five years to promote better farming techniques in Crawford, Erie, Huron, Marion, Ottawa, Richland, Sandusky, Seneca, Shelby, and Wyandot counties.

Similar grants have been made available to farmers in Lucas, Wood, Fulton, Defiance, Henry, and Napoleon counties in the past.

"The objective of this funding being awarded to State of Ohio is to expand into all counties that are within the western Lake Erie basin and extend beyond the Maumee [River] basin," Kirk Hines, chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture's Division of Soil and Water Conservation, said.

The money is coming from a USDA grant, and is being used in support of Gov. Mike DeWine's H2Ohio initiative to help farmers develop nutrient management plans and other conservation practices in those counties, the state agriculture department said.

The program is being coordinated with help from the U.S. government's National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS.

Farmers in those counties can begin enrolling for the program through their local soil & water district office in late summer, according to the announcement.

"Over the next couple of months, ODA will be negotiating the specifics of this award being granted by USDA," Mr. Hines said. "Once the details of the program are set forth, farmers will apply by contacting their local USDA/SWCD Service Center."

Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Dorothy Pelanda said the DeWine administration "is grateful for NRCS and its insight as we work together to improve water quality through proven conservation best practices."

John Wilson, NRCS acting state conservationist in Ohio, said the new project "capitalizes on the power of local partnerships to implement innovative solutions and improve the health of the western Lake Erie water basin by enhancing water quality and soil productivity."

Additional information on how to apply for the grants is forthcoming.

"The involvement of NRCS in H2Ohio speaks to the importance of this initiative and to its successful rollout," Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, said. "These new funds will help thousands of farmers involved in the program offset the costs of soil testing and creating nutrient management plans, both important first steps of H2Ohio and for determining a farmer's best options for additional water quality practices. These added funds will also continue the strong momentum of the program as it expands to include more farmers throughout the Lake Erie Watershed to help them find more ways to keep their soil healthy and their water clean."

The $8 million grant to Ohio is part of USDA's $330 million investment in 85 locally driven, public-private partnerships to address climate change, improve the nation's water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat, and protect agricultural viability, according to a news release.

First Published May 2, 2021, 12:30pm