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Dan Wire Vs. the Giant Green Blob That Devoured Lake Erie
Or: How the Maumee River Basin contributes to Lake Erie’s blue-green algae problem, and what we’re doing about it
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
In August 2014, Toledo experienced a severe water crisis caused by an outbreak of blue-green algae in Lake Erie. A state of emergency was declared, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency told city officials to issue a “do not drink” warning — the city’s first — to area residents. Bottled water became a prized resource as officials anxiously awaited test results that would indicate if the tap water was once again safe to drink and use. For several days, not only could residents of Toledo not drink tap water, they couldn’t shower or swim or even brush their teeth without bottled water. Businesses were closed, restaurants were shut down, and the whole city and its suburbs virtually ground to a halt.
The toxin contaminant that caused the crisis — that blue-green algae — has plagued Lake Erie and its shoreline to varying degrees for years. Usually, the advanced water treatment and processing facilities prevents toxins from contaminating the drinking water. But that August, the algae outbreak came on earlier and much stronger than usual, catching officials who monitor the water supply off guard.
Yet even when a city’s water supply is not contaminated, the blue-green algae can wreak havoc on the economy and way of life on the shores of Lake Erie. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures, but when it’s really bad, it just looks like this green jello,” says Dan Wire, director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance and overall advocate of Allen County’s water ways. “It’s this putrid green that goes out for miles. It stinks, washes up on the beach, decomposes…”
Wire explains that the blue-green algae is caused by “nutrient loading” — basically, fertilizers and other agricultural products that make their way into Lake Erie. “That’s what it feeds off of. That’s what makes it bloom,” says Wire. “98% of algae are just fine. But there are a few that become toxic and problematic, and they’re grouped into blue-green algae. It shuts down drinking water supplies, can make people sick, closes beaches, hurts the charter fishing and tourism industry.”
And that’s where Northeast Indiana comes in. The Maumee River Basin is a major water supplier to Lake Erie, and a great deal of the phosphorous that make up the algae’s diet comes from our area. “We are a huge contributor to Toledo’s problem,” Wire says. “We’re over 20% of the watershed that goes to Toledo.”
As we said above, Wire is a tireless champion of Allen County’s rivers and waterways. FWR first interviewed him about six years ago, when as the head of Friends of the River he was advocating using the rivers for recreation — something he had done in his youth, and still does. He’s still very involved in Fort Wayne’s riverfront development projects. But he also sees a bigger picture. Recently, the Tri-State Watershed Alliance hosted a luncheon with guest speaker Chris Winslow, the acting Director of Stone Laboratory, located on Lake Erie. Stone Laboratory was first established in 1895. “They’ve been doing research there forever,” Wire says. “The purpose (of the talk) was to look at the Lake Erie algae, specifically the nutrient loading, present the latest findings and what’s being done about it.”
Wire explains that the latest “buzzword” in the field is DRP — Dissolved Reactive Phosphorous. Simply put, this is what is available for algae to take up instantly. Research has found that the DSP value has escalated dramatically in the last decade or so. A joint commission between Canada and the US has targeted a 40% reduction in the level of DRP by 2025.
Also, in response to the crisis in Toledo, Ohio passed significant legislation designed to curb the problem. “There are three legislative pieces that really impact the farmers,” says Wire. “They can’t spread nutrients when it’s gonna rain; they can’t spread on frozen ground; and must do soil tests — does this piece of land really need more nutrients?”
Which is all well and good, but water sheds and waterways aren’t confined by geo-political boundaries. If the Maumee Basin is contributing to the blue-green algae problem — and it is — then legislation passed in Ohio is only going to do so much to reduce the DRP value in Lake Erie. According to Wire, about 75% to 80% of the land use in this area is agricultural — a lot of potential nutrients for algae.
Wire stops short of saying he’d like to see similar legislation passed in Indiana. He’d like to see the agricultural community — farmers, suppliers, manufacturers — make these changes voluntarily. “If you don’t try to do these voluntary things, you’re going to have some suit in some cubicle that’s going to throw a law at you, and as well-intentioned as it might be, sometimes those things get a little difficult,” he says. “When it’s down to the implementing it, now all of a sudden it’s a labyrinth of b.s. regulation.”
Judging from what Wire has seen and heard in Ohio and in our area, the agricultural industry wants to implement some of these best management practices. “Your big producers and big ag retailers, they want to be efficient and cost effective,” he explains. “Farmers are not happy about buying nutrients and having it wash away. Some of these practices would really lower their input costs. So, they want to participate in this 40% reduction, but they’re asking ‘how do we make this work?’”
Though Wire explains that technology in the agricultural sector is developing methods of better “incorporating” seeds and nutrients into farmed land — more precise planting and “feeding” methods, to be a little more specific — the industry isn’t quite there yet. Plus, when it comes to these best practices, one size does not fit all — what works for 300 acres may not work for 5,000.
And of course it’s not all agriculture either. Combined sewer overflow in many municipalities (including Fort Wayne), outdated and failing septic systems, heavy rains falling on miles of “impervious surfaces” (asphalt, concrete, etc.), plus a host of other factors all add up to what Wire describes as a perfect storm…
So yeah, it’s a big, complicated, tangle. But Wire, however, is hardly a prophet of doom and gloom when it comes to this issue. As an example, he points to Fort Wayne’s efforts to fix its combined sewer overflow problem. In response to a federal mandate, the city has been working on separating its storm drains from its sanitary sewer system for many years (many, many cities are dealing with a similar issue); the recently revealed “please-don’t-call-it-the-Big-Dig” tunnel project is part of the CSO initiative. “That’s going to reduce the amount of sewer overflow by around 90%,” Wire points out, adding that there is plenty of opportunity for the Maumee River Basin to do its share to help Lake Erie meet — and possibly beat — the 40% reduction in DRP by 2025 set by the commission.
The ideal solution, however, might be an idea floated by a speaker at last year’s river summit in Fort Wayne. Marcy Kaptur, the US Representative for Ohio’s 9th district, suggested turning the Western Lake Erie basin — which is fed by the Maumee and the Sandusky rivers, among others — into a “51st state.” Though she wasn’t being literal… “Those were her words,” says Wire. What that means is that for certain specific purposes the area would be considered a separate entity. “That way, we’d be able to allocate resources to the area, and make sure those resources don’t go anywhere else,” says Wire, adding that the Chesapeake Bay has that designation. “With that sort of designation, we wouldn’t become entangled in county lines, state lines, and all these other geo-political barriers.”
For more information on the Tri-Sate Watershed Alliance, visit omirivers.org