Pam Taylor, a member of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, outside of Danley’s Country House in Tecumseh, MI.
Pam Taylor sits at a table in Danley’s Country House, a restaurant in the northeast corner of Lenawee County, MI. Her tone is straightforward when she speaks; she has had this conversation before. “Lake Erie is going to continue to get worse,” Taylor says, adding a packet of sugar to her coffee. “It’s just a matter of Providence that a toxic algal bloom as bad as Toledo’s didn’t hit the water intakes from Saginaw Bay [and Lake] St. Clair. At some point very soon – sooner rather than later – the politicians and everybody else are going to have to deal with this. That’s the fact of the matter.”
Lake Erie has long been known for its annual algal blooms, which pose a threat to human health as well as environmental quality. In November 2016, the blooms prompted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to designate the Michigan waters of the Western Lake Erie Basin as “impaired,” citing “excessive levels of phosphorus” as the their main cause. Several other Michigan waterways are also regularly impacted by algal blooms, and reducing the nutrient runoff that sustains them is one of the key goals of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, founded in 2010. In March 2017, however, the Trump administration released its 2018 budget proposal which featured a $2.6 billion reduction to the Environmental Protection Agency as well as an elimination of funds allocated toward regional programs, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Michael Moore, a professor of environmental and natural resource economics at the University of Michigan, disagrees with this aspect of the proposal. “The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been well funded for [several] years… and I think that [the proposed funding cuts] really would be a severe setback to improving water quality in several different dimensions in the Great Lakes,” Moore said.
Taylor, who has lived in Lenawee County her whole life, is a member of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, a group that aims to raise public awareness regarding the impact that regional agriculture has on local water quality. “The phosphorus is the problem,” Taylor said. “You can’t take that out when you treat manure. It’s an element, it stays there… No matter what you do to it.”
According to Tim Davis, molecular microbiologist and head of the Harmful Algal Bloom program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, (NOAA-GLERL) nutrient runoff from agriculture as well as stormwater and wastewater from urban areas are the main contributors to harmful algal blooms. The blooms, comprised mainly of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, thrive off of these nutrients. Microcystis, one of the main cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, produces a metabolite called “microcystin,” a liver toxin that can be lethal in high doses, although there has been no recorded human fatality attributed to cyanobacterial exposure in the Great Lakes region.
“If you were to swim in waters currently impacted by cyanobacteria blooms, you can develop rashes [and a] sore throat. If you ingest some of the cells, there are non-acute symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, [and other symptoms] associated with the common flu,” Davis said. In Lake Erie, the blooms occur during the majority of the summer recreational season, posing a potential hazard to beachgoers.
Algal blooms also threaten the stability of Lake Erie’s food web structure and overall ecosystem. They form at the surface of the water and can reduce the amount of light that reaches vegetation growing in lower levels of the water column, causing those plants to die. In severe cases, the blooms can also lead to mass fish kills. “When you have a large die-off of these cyanobacteria, you get [these] heterotrophic bacteria that consume oxygen as they break down the biomass [of the cyanobacteria]…. [and] that will deplete the oxygen concentration in the water and can lead to fish kills,” Davis said. This is a specific consequence of algal blooms in inland lakes because, unlike Lake Erie, the fish in those ecosystems do not have the option of swimming away from these low-oxygen areas.
When asked about the potential federal budget cuts to NOAA, Davis said that it was too early in the budgeting process to comment on specifics. “In general, if cuts to Great Lakes funding do occur, we would have to reassess our priorities to work with the budget that we have,” Davis said.
Kevin Robson is a horticulture specialist within the Commodities Department for the Michigan Farm Bureau, a policy-driven organization that advocates for Michigan farmers on the state and national level. He says that he is in favor of making the federal government more productive, but that it’s too soon to make judgements on the proposal. “Do I think that there’s an opportunity to make the government run more efficiently in many different areas? Yeah, I do,” Robson said. “When it comes to the FDA and the USDA, I think our farmers are really excited to see some things change.”
Robson also says that Michigan farmers are doing their part to reduce nutrient runoff produced by agriculture by participating in programs such as the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. “The MAEAP program gives farmers kind of a rubric for [if they] want to be a part of the solution… Things like putting in pads where [they] do [their] chemical mixing, putting in concrete containment facilities where [they] do the fueling for [their] tractors…. A lot of farmers are doing it, every day they’re signing on,” Robson said. “There’s no better environmentalist out there than the Michigan farmer, the American farmer. Whether they make money or lose money depends on the water that they get from the sky and the dirt that they turn over. There’s no farmer out there that’s going to want to jeopardize that.”
While President Trump’s budget proposal remains in its preliminary stages, one thing is certain: Lake Erie will experience another algal bloom this summer, just as it has for the past several years. Tim Davis, though, remains optimistic about the potential for improving water quality in the Great Lakes. “It depends on how quality domestic action plans are developed and put in place, but we’ve done this before,” Davis said. “It’s a bit more difficult now, but it’s not unheard of.”