It's summertime, and Lake Erie's in trouble.
Songwriters seeking seasonal inspiration should look away from the not-so-great Great Lake in the coming months. With a regularity that has become disturbing, scientists are again predicting the much-abused body of water will soon be contaminated by a toxic, smelly algae bloom.
Bloom is too lyrical a word for the bacterial scum that chokes parts of Lake Erie every year. Toxins produced by the fast-multiplying algae, nourished in large part by fertilizer runoff, make people sick, kill fish and other aquatic life, compromise the water supply, wreck tourism markets and cost governments a fortune in monitoring and maintenance.
This year's bloom could be among the most severe ever, due to heavy rainstorms in June that carried high levels of phosphorus nutrients into the lake for the algae to feed on. Farm fertilizer is the biggest source of the pollution. And corn is the leading agricultural culprit, a crop that is being increasingly farmed to satisfy a growing demand for ethanol.
As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and the quickest to warm, Erie has been historically vulnerable to algae blooms. We have been here before: In the 1960s and 1970s, phosphorus discharge from inadequate sewage facilities threatened to turn the lake into a dead zone. That problem was solved by investments in better treatment plants in both the U.S. and Canada, coupled with reductions in the phosphate levels of laundry detergents.
And then we looked away. Agriculture in the Great Lakes basin has since intensified, and there has been insufficient oversight of the ultimately toxic relationship between fertilizer-dependent farms and hungry micro-organisms in a far-off lake. But the severity of blooms over the past decade has finally made governments on both sides of the border take notice.
Ontario, Michigan and Ohio agreed last month to a 40-per-cent reduction over the next decade in the phosphorus that reaches Lake Erie's western basin. That's a good start, but the true test will come when this hopeful accord has to be implemented. For an accelerated reduction on that big a scale, farming practices will have to change dramatically – and governments on both side of the border will have to recognize the priority of saving a once-great lake.