Sustainable Food Production Would End Lake Erie Dead Zones

Harmful algae bloom. Bolles Harbor, Monroe, MI, Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

By Suzy Friedman

Summer fun should include diving into refreshing, clear oceans and lakes. But for communities around the western side of Lake Erie, the fourth largest lake of the five Great Lakes in North America, this tradition is likely to yet again be disrupted by a severe algae bloom.

Blooms occur when there is an explosion of populations of algae in a water system. Such blooms harm water quality and create “dead zones” (areas of low-oxygen due to excess algal growth) that cannot support aquatic life.

Just one year ago, a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water source for close to 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio.

This cycle of algae blooms continues, in large part, because of our need to eat. Our incredibly diverse and plentiful food system pushes farmers across the nation to be as productive as possible. To achieve high yields, farmers rely heavily on fertilizers, the engine of modern agriculture. This is great for all of us roaming the aisles at the grocery store, but there are downsides as well.

Nutrients from fertilizer that aren’t absorbed by crops can run off into local waterways, leading to water pollution and possible algae blooms. They can also release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This year’s record rainfalls in the Midwest make the challenge of managing fertilizer even more difficult, washing away applied fertilizer before crops can even take it up.

Experts are predicting that this year’s algae bloom in Lake Erie could be among the worst ever recorded.

Harmful algae bloom. Bolles Harbor, Monroe, MI, Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

This is not just happening in Lake Erie. Algal blooms and dead zones are common in far too many lakes and coastal zones.

We can prevent these blooms by helping farmers —> Read More