Algae To Make Reappearance On Great Lakes, Group Warns

Globs of algae along the Great Lakes shorelines repulsed swimmers and sunbathers in the 1960s. A crackdown on phosphorous pollution helped restore the water to health. Now, the nightmare may be poised to repeat itself, according to the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC).

The troubling return of algae is a throwback to the days when rampant pollution of the Great Lakes led researchers to declare Lake Erie "dead" in the 1970s. And it is a warning that the state can not afford to ignore, concludes a report released on June 13 by the council.

The report, Something's Amuck: Algae blooms return to Michigan shores, argues that invasive species, combined with legal loopholes that encourage phosphorus pollution, have opened the door for algae's comeback.

The report provides Michigan's citizens and the legislature with concrete steps that should be taken to choke off the green slime before it again gets a foothold on Great Lakes' sandy shores.

"This report provides a thoughtful and understandable synthesis of the problems and causes of Great Lakes algae blooms as they are occurring now, and places them in historic context," said Rochelle Sturtevant, extension educator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Great Lakes research laboratory. "The practical solutions recommended in this report should be considered an important first step toward getting a handle on a growing and troublesome algae problem in our lakes."

The problem threatens to undermine both the uniquely Michigan way of life that includes lazy days at the beach and the economic vigor of water-dependent tourism, agriculture and manufacturing, the group states.

The MEC report traces the history of algae in the Great Lakes, fueled in part by excessive phosphorus -- a nutrient that accelerates plant growth that is commonly used in detergents and fertilizers. Public revulsion over algae prompted a virtual ban on phosphorus in detergents in Ontario and the Great Lakes states by the early 1970s, the group states.

The ugly algal blooms can clog intake pipes to nuclear power plants, torpedo property values along shorelines, and suck all the oxygen from parts of lakes, creating "dead zones" that kill fish and smaller organisms. However, there are solutions that can make a difference, the group states.

"Parts of the problem -- like what do about invasive quagga mussels that exacerbate the problem -- are harder to solve than others," said Lana Pollack, MEC president. "But other parts, like closing loopholes in pollution laws and educating homeowners about water-friendly ways to fertilize their lawns, are relatively simple."

Among the recommendations:

  • Reduce phosphorus fertilizers: A statewide ban on phosphorus lawn fertilizer should be enacted.
  • Close the loophole: Laws limit phosphorus in laundry soaps, but not dishwashing detergents, which should fall under the same rules.
  • Expand buffers: Educational campaigns and financial incentives can help homeowners and farmers create strips of natural vegetation along waterways to absorb excess phosphorus before it gets to the water.
  • Reduce leakage: Stronger controls on failing septic systems, raw sewage discharges and other seepages of phosphorus-laden waste should be established.
  • Research and monitoring: A commitment of funding to a water monitoring and research program can track trends and sources.
  • Education: people can have an impact by choosing fertilizers and detergents carefully, and cultivating good yard-care practices.

The report can be accessed at

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