The Clean Water Blog

Lake Erie Algal Bloom - August 2015. Photo Credit: NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch

Protecting Lake Erie and Reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard

Forty-five years ago, Lake Erie was so polluted that TIME Magazine stated it was, “in danger of dying by suffocation.” Although there was a massive clean-up effort on the local, state, and federal level, Lake Erie once again experienced the largest harmful algal bloom in recorded history in 2011, with a peak intensity over three times greater than any previously observed bloom.

Where are these algal blooms coming from? Although there are many causes, increased corn production in recent years is an important factor. Corn is one of the most chemical dependent crops. It loves phosphate fertilizers, and so does algae. When it rains, the water that runs off of corn fields can be loaded with extremely high volumes of phosphorous nutrients. When this pollution lands in the shallow western basin of Lake Erie, it promotes rapid and massive growth of unhealthy, even toxic green slime.

In 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio suffered a drinking water shortage affecting half a million residents for three days, thanks to yet another toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie. This event was even worse than the 2011 occurrence. Recorded algae levels were 1,000 times higher than levels deemed safe for drinking water by the World Health Organization. The disaster closed down beaches, which had dramatic effects on fishing, tourism, and recreation industries, all while killing and pushing marine life out of its way.

As someone who grew up in Erie, this deeply concerns me because so much of my life has revolved around the lake and its tributaries. When I was young, my grandfather taught me how to fish at the mouth of 4-mile creek. I probably earned most of my Boy Scout Merit Badges at Presque Isle, and of course, I’ll never forget that perfect first date as we went to the top of the Bicentennial Tower at the Dock and watched the sun set over the bay.  

I also remember observing just how fragile our ecosystem was when transoceanic ships introduced zebra mussels to the lake in the early 90’s. Just like algal blooms, this invasive species had a swift and devastating effect on the lake and all of us who lived near it. As a young person, I took all of these things for granted, but now I worry that my grandchildren won’t have the luxury of making these same types of memories. We’re all connected to the lake in one way or another, and I believe that it is our duty to preserve it for generations to come.   

The Renewable Fuel Standard was a federal mandate passed into law in 2005 to blend renewable fuels into conventional gasoline. The authors of the law meant to drive innovation and development of truly renewable cellulosic fuels, but have instead driven more and more conversion of natural areas to corn fields.

Although the law was passed with good intentions, it has resulted in a major transformation of the landscape with devastating effects, including degrading the water quality of the Great Lakes with corn-fertilizer driven algal blooms. This occurs as a result of agricultural runoff during storms.

We must reform the Renewable Fuel Standard so it gives farmers more choices to manage agricultural runoff and so that it promotes biofuels made from sources other than corn to protect our Great Lakes that we cherish and call home.