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Algae explosion in Lake Erie is posing danger to fish, tourism and locals

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Lake Erie is fast succumbing to algae blooms caused by phosphorus runoff. The algae harm marine life and degrade water quality, according to a report by The International Joint Commission (IJC), a US-Canadian agency.

Water quality in Lake Erie has been declining for the past decade. It hasn't always been this bad, though. In the 1980's, after vigorous control of phosphorus inputs, Lake Erie rapidly recovered. However, the algae has returned to the lake in much higher levels, and is now seriously threatening the lake's ecosystem as well as its tourism.

The report specifically pinpointed phosphorus runoffs from diffuse land uses as the culprit for the explosion of algae in the lake. Agricultural operations, specifically fertilizer application and manure, coupled with snowmelt and heavy rainfall, cause phosphorus loadings to run off toward the lake.

Urban areas also contribute to the phosphorus loading. Construction activities, urban waste, sewer overflow, storm water runoff, lawn and garden activities, and even leaves from deciduous trees, are factors that exacerbate phosphorus levels in the lake.

All of these factors, compounded by climate change, taking into consideration future nutrient loading and a much warmer water temperature, the current algal blooms could become even worse. Fish in the lake are greatly affected by the decreasing oxygen levels in the water, which is caused by the decomposing algae, which, together with the much warmer water temperature, cause phosphorus to be released from existing sediment, further increasing the phosphorus loading.

Even people who try to enjoy the lake by swimming, boating, or doing watersports can be affected by the toxins present in the water. Gastrointestinal discomfort, though rare, is a possibility. If a bloom is ingested, acute liver failure can occur. Drinking water in the area is no longer safe as well. Property values have declined due to this. Clearly, drastic measures need to be undertaken.

Lake Erie is one of the five Great Lakes. They make up the largest surface freshwater ecosystem on earth. The Great Lakes basin is home to over 45 million people in the United States and Canada, and has provided fresh water and food for many generations. However, in the years leading to the 1970s, rapid industrialization has affected the quality of the Great Lakes, and Lake Erie seemed to have suffered the worst.

In 1972, an agreement was signed by the United States and Canada to establish a binational effort to reduce runoffs to the lake, and undertake a major lake cleanup. The effort bore fruit, and in the 1980s, the Lake Erie cleanup was a much-lauded success story.

In 2012, a new agreement was signed that mostly contained new annexes that responded to the current times, taking into consideration climate change, new species, and other new challenges that have recently emerged. With this new conscious effort, the IJC hopes to see a healthier Lake Erie in the near future.

"The public has told us, and research has confirmed, that Lake Erie is impaired by an excess of nutrients that feed harmful" said Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the IJC."We commend the U.S. and Canada for their work and investments to help Lake Erie, but it's time for governments at all levels to put the lake on a diet by setting targets and achieving real reductions in nutrient loads."

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