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Predicting algae levels on Lake Erie

Annie Baxter May 28, 2015

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association are hoping to arm communities with resources in the event of another water crisis on Lake Erie this summer. 

Algae blooms, caused by excessive phosphorus from pollutants like farm fertilizers, made water in the Toledo area undrinkable last summer. When the algae die, they produce a toxin, which can make water unsafe to drink. 

“These blooms, cynobacteria, they like it hot. They don’t grow very well when it’s cold,” says Richard Stumpf, a NOAA oceanographer. 

Stumpf is part of an effort to create a forecast of algae blooms for this summer, based on phosophorus levels in Lake Erie in the spring months. 

“The spring phosphorus load is what drives the summer bloom,” he says. 

Stumpf says armed with the forecast, communities can at least do things like order more supplies such as charcoal filters, which eliminate the toxins and make the water drinkable.

New rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency this week were expected to protect waterways in such a way as to limit runoff of farm fertilizer.

But, William Buzbee, a law professor at Georgetown University, says the new rules largely limit deliberate pollution, not runoff.

“That remains a thorny challenge we haven’t addressed effectively in the United States,” he said.

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