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Warning over Lake Erie algae blooms

The 2011 algae bloom was the third largest on record. Image: NASA/MODIS

The 2011 algae bloom was the third largest on record. Image: NASA/MODIS


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, September 1, 2013, 9:38 AM -

Governments on both side of the border need to staunch the flow of phosphorus into Lake Erie, or risk seeing the lake become an algae-choked "dead zone."

That's the dire warning being issued by the International Joint Commission -- the body responsible for monitoring the Great Lakes.

A new report released last week by the commission says excessive phosphorus runoff was responsible for a massive algae bloom in 2011, and it could happen again.

This isn't a new problem. In fact, algae blooms are the reason we even HAVE the joint commission.

The Lake Erie watershed. Credit: International Joint Commission/Michigan Sea Grant

The Lake Erie watershed. Credit: International Joint Commission/Michigan Sea Grant

By the 1960s, high levels of phosphorus - found in detergents, fertilizer, manure and plant waste - almost left Lake Erie devoid of fish life.

To combat the problem, the U.S. and Canadian governments formed the International Joint Commission to monitor the lakes, and toughened up regulations.

In worked, with algae blooms almost disappearing, but they have been returning in recent years.

In 2011, heavy rains washed large amounts of phosphorus into the lake, and when higher temperatures hit, the resulting bloom eventually spawned a mass of algae covering more than 5,000 square kilometres - three times more than the previous record.

A 2012 bloom, following a near ice-free winter, was also extensive enough to be seen from space.

The 2012 bloom, seen in this March 2012 shot, followed a warm, nearly ice-free winter on the Great Lakes. Image: NASA/Modis

The 2012 bloom, seen in this March 2012 shot, followed a warm, nearly ice-free winter on the Great Lakes. Image: NASA/Modis

The commission's draft report, includes 15 recommendations on how to monitor, and slow, the flow of the mineral into the lakes.

The report's Canadian co-author, Glenn Benoy, says there is evidence an algae bloom is starting to spread now, but he doesn't know how severe it will be as blooms tend to peak in the fall.

More than 45 million people live in the Great Lakes watershed.

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