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Return of the green goo: Lake Erie's toxic algae will be back this summer, say scientists

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It's not so easy being green -- especially when it comes to our water supply. Scientists from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say that we can expect the reappearance of cyanobacteria, a toxic green algae which has been plaguing the western part of Lake Erie for the past few summers. The bloom of cyanobacteria will be smaller this year than it was last year, and much smaller than the record-setting 2011 bloom. But it will still have a harmful impact this summer - how much has yet to be determined.

Algae sounds harmless, but cyanobacteria is dangerous because it produces toxins that may pollute drinking water and recreational water. Coming in contact with toxins may induce gastroenteritis, skin irritation and allergic responses in people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cyanobacteria is also harmful to fish populations, since it can deplete oxygen from areas of water, choking fish and making lakes uninhabitable for aquatic life.

The bloom impact in specific regions around Lake Erie will depend on the size and spread of the cyanobacteria. The bacteria is known by the acronym HAB, short for harmful algal blooms. The NOAA has been issuing weekly HAB bulletins for Lake Erie since 2008. This year is the third summer in a row the NOAA has issued a warning about a particularly bad bloom. Researchers say that HAB was common in western Lake Erie from the 1960s to around the 1990s, but blooms this bad hadn't been seen for the past 20 years.

"The reemergence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie is an ecological and economic setback for communities along the coast," U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur said. "NOAA, Ohio Sea Grant, OSU, Heidelberg University and University of Toledo are developing tools to predict and target phosphorus, which will help in the fight to restore balance to Lake Erie's ecosystem, Ohio's greatest natural resource."

Cyanobacteria is caused by overflow of nutrients from farms. Don Scavia, the director of the University of Michigan's Graham Sustainability Institute, said, "Until we reduce the flow of nutrients from croplands into the lake, large algae blooms will likely continue to plague Lake Erie."

The NOAA model for predicting the hazardous blooms is currently being used by the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force II to help scientists target reductions in the amount of phosphorus going into Lake Erie. Jeff Reutter, Ph.D., called the data "incredibly valuable" in the NOAA press statement. Reutter is the director of Ohio State University's Sea Grant program and Stone Laboratory.

According to the NOAA press statement, NOAA is currently also developing HABs and hypoxia forecasts for the Gulf of Maine, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest.

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