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Uh oh: Lake Erie even more susceptible to bacterial blooms than we thought

Mark Brush
Michigan Radio

It's only one study. 

But if it's right, then researchers at the University of Michigan and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration have just proven that Lake Erie is even more vulnerable to toxic bacterial blooms than we thought.

And we don't really know why. 

Don Scavia is one of the study's coauthors. He's a professor at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. 

"So we know that phosphorous loads going into the western basin of Lake Erie, primarily from agricultural sources, is what’s driving these blooms," he says. 

"What’s new in this study is that when we looked at what’s happened over the last decade, what we discovered is that the lake is becoming more sensitive to the loads.

"What that means is that a load of a certain amount that happened a decade ago is actually producing more bloom now than it would have back then. So the lake is becoming more sensitive," he says. 

Why is it more sensitive now? Good question.

Scavia and his fellow researchers are trying out a few hypotheses: global warming, rising lake temperature, unusually calm weather, or even invasive species.

These new findings are published in the journal Water Resources Research, with the catchy title of "Using a Bayesian hierarchical model to improve Lake Erie cyanobacteria forecasts." 

What they could mean is that the current recommendations for reducing phosphorous runoff into Lake Erie may not go far enough. 

The issue became more urgent after Toledo and some Michigan residents went days without being able to drink from their taps this past August.

That was because of a massive bacterial bloom on Lake Erie.

Still, Scavia says these new findings shouldn't distract people from the most important takeaway:

"Let's not divert attention away from taking action," he says.

"We can argue over whether it's a 30% reduction or a 40% or a 50% [reduction in phosphorous that would solve the bacterial bloom issues], but let's get to 20% and see if it makes a difference." 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.