Lake Erie toxic algae bloom: Time to scale up solutions we know work

Karen Chapman

Editor’s note: This post was updated April 11, 2019.

A 2014 drinking water crisis in Toledo was a sober reminder that we need better solutions to address runoff from farms and urban areas.

The crisis resulted when algae containing cyanobacteria – which can be toxic to animals and humans - surrounded Toledo’s water intake in Lake Erie. The toxin can form when large amounts of fertilizers and sewage from farms and urban areas run off the land and end up in waterways.

The problem was not unique to Toledo. Inland lakes across the United States have seen a rise in phosphorus-driven algae blooms in recent decades. Where these lakes supply drinking water for communities, similar scenarios could unfold.

Online platform helps farmers share best practices

In my job at Environmental Defense Fund, I’ve partnered with farmers in Ohio for many years to increase agricultural productivity while reducing nutrient losses to water and air.

Together, we’ve developed platforms such as the Adapt Network  that help farmers test nutrient rates and improve time and placement of nitrogen and phosphorus. It also helps them promote soil health initiatives and strategic placement of landscape filters such as buffers and wetlands that keep nutrients from seeping into lakes and streams.

Farms in the Midwest managed to cut fertilizer loss by an average of 25 percent. 

Improving soil health increases its ability to process the nutrients that are applied. It means the crop is better able to use the fertilizers that were spread on the fields and that less is lost.

Another way to improve nutrient use efficiency is to time the applications of fertilizers when they can best be used by the crop – and to avoid the application of fertilizers prior to a rain or snowmelt event when much might be carried off the field. 

Thanks to these programs and efficiency tools, thousands of farms in the Midwest managed to cut fertilizer loss by an average of 25% on half a million acres – all while maintaining or increasing crop yields.

Awareness of runoff is growing

Most farmers want to be good stewards and they’re open to trying new practices and technology once they see the results on their own farms.

In northwestern Ohio, for example, it was common practice to spread fertilizers on frozen or snow-covered ground during the winter.

With the increasing focus on Lake Erie’s algae problems – and the awareness that much of that fertilizer spread in the winter may not actually penetrate down to the soil, but can run off during spring rain and snowmelt – this practice is now widely frowned upon and no longer common.

But a lot more must be done.

Connecting the supply chain for greater impact

Major retailers and food companies today have an interest in sustainable production. It offers a great opportunity for making conservation an integrated part of the business of agriculture in a whole new way, and builds on the good work we’re already doing with farmers on the ground.

Today, EDF is working with Walmart, General Mills, United Suppliers and other influential food companies, agribusinesses and grower organizations to drive transformative change. Our common goal is to improve water and air quality while achieving high levels of productivity across America’s agricultural system.

Scaling up projects like these is a necessity. We must send strong signals that producing the food we all eat cannot come at the expense of our streams, rivers and lakes – or of the people who depend on them for drinking water.