Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Jessica Thomas makes this connection here…

The article titled “Spring Rain, Then Foul Algae in Ailing Lake Erie” was published in the New York Times on March 14, 2013. This news relates to the WRE domain of hydrology and the specific issue of water quality in Lake Erie. This news article explains why weather predictions that show above average spring rain over the Lake Erie region have brought up concerns for the safety of the lake. The article briefly describes how water quality was a challenge for Lake Erie in the past, when 64 million pounds of phosphorus from sewage and industrial pollutants were openly dumped into the lake. However, a multi-billion dollar clean-up improved the water quality greatly by lowering phosphorus levels and having algae blooms diminish. But now due to climate change, the amount of heavy spring rains is only expected to increase throughout the years. This is related to algae blooms because the heavy spring rain washes fertilizer off of the farmland, and the fertilizer contains nutrients such as phosphorus that feed the plants and algae in the lake. In my opinion, the New York Times effectively brought attention to the issue at Lake Erie. However, from an engineering stand point the article failed to bring a more scientific aspect on the water quality issues. They also failed to discuss any solutions to this pressing problem.  Other sources, such as the National Geographic use more concrete facts such as “at its peak, the bloom covered 1,930 square miles (Green With Algae)” while the New York Times article only say’s that the algae covered a large portion of Lake Erie. Also, according to a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, there are much more components to this water quality issue. For instance, while the New York times article simply mentions that the algae is harmful and foul, the journal explains that this type of algae is called Microcystis and is a toxic cyanobacteria. According to the journal, “Microcystis thrives in Lake Erie, where its growth is stimulated by high concentrations of DRP and combined inorganic nitrogen (Michalak, et al, 2013).” Not mentioning more scientific details is what makes the New York Times unsuccessful in covering this water resources issue. 

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Figure 1 – Photo from NASA shows visible algae in Lake Erie

The water quality issue in Lake Erie described in this news story impacts the broader WRE context area of economics. The area of economics concerns the production, consumption, and distribution of money. The health and productivity of Lake Erie greatly impacts the economy in and around the lake. As discussed in the New York Times article, the tourism industry in this area brings in 10 billion dollars annually (Wines, 2013). However, when the quality of the water is poor the tourism industry suffers because less people are inclined to visit and spend money in the area. Fish are harmed by the pollution so no fishermen are interested in the area, swimmers are discouraged, and the property values around the lake go down as well.  Furthermore, the lake is not just used for tourism but also as a main source of drinking water. The algae blooms that are becoming more frequent pollute drinking water used by millions of people. According to the Northeast Ohio Media Group, “Cleveland, whose water supply comes from Lake Erie, spends an extra $5,500 per day on treatment chemicals when a bloom is present (Mangels, 2013).” Having to spend so much money on a necessity such as water is greatly impacting the economy of the area. Therefore, having poor water quality in Lake Erie causes the economy in and around Lake Erie to suffer. 

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Figure 2 – Algae blooms on the shore of Lake Erie

References:

Wines, M. (2013, March 14). Spring rain, then foul algae in ailing lake erie. The New York Times . Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/15/science/earth/algae-blooms-threaten-lake-erie.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Green with algae. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/04/pictures/130423-extreme-algae-bloom-fertilizer-lake-erie-science/

Michalak, A., et al, (2013). Record-setting algal bloom in lake erie caused by agricultural and meteorological trends consistent with expected future conditions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/110/16/6448.full.pdf html?sid=0293c8b5-b488-4446-bd67-309729abfa75

Mangels, J. (2013, April 1). Record-sized lake erie algae bloom of 2011 may become regular occurrence, study says. Northeast Ohio Media Group, Retrieved from http://www.cleveland.com/science/index.ssf/2013/04/record-sized_lake_erie_algae_b.html

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