What is the Lake Erie algae problem telling us?

  • Sunday, August 24, 2014

     What is the Lake Erie algae bloom telling us?

    Dr. Arthur L. Allen - agriculture research professor

    By Arthur L. Allen, Ph.D.

    PRINCESS ANNE, MD- (Aug. 24, 2014) - The nation's attention on the recent algal bloom in Lake Erie that affected the city of Toledo's water supply serves as a reminder that similar conditions can impact the Chesapeake Bay in our own backyard.  

    The Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie both experience harmful algal blooms and are affected by "nutrient inputs" from agricultural and urban sources alike. Lake Erie, of course, is a freshwater lake while the Chesapeake Bay is an estuarine body. They respond differently to nutrients that can and do accelerate algae growth capable of fouling our water.   

    Nutrients, principally phosphorus and nitrogen, are a national problem, which require significant action across all states. Nowhere has there been more attention and research focused on this problem than in the Chesapeake Bay region. On Delmarva, our principal source of drinking water is from wells, not the bay, but we should be vigilant nonetheless about the Chesapeake's long-term health.   

    As a public research institution, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at Penn State University to develop solutions aimed at reducing the movement of nitrogen and phosphorus into Chesapeake Bay tributaries.   

    Over the past 10 years, my colleague Dr. Eric May and I have worked closely with ARS, which has helped make UMES a leader in developing better technologies and management practices addressing the problem of reducing nutrients movement into the bay.   

    From the research conducted by members of the UMES Nutrient Management Laboratory and ARS, innovative approaches have been developed, including use of special "edge-of-field" technologies that absorb phosphorus, a technology that injects dry poultry manure below the soil surface and ditch structures that absorb nitrogen. Extensions of this work conducted by the team that Eric and I supervise also are addressing the emerging issue of urea, which is used as an alternative to poultry litter as a fertilizer.   

    Our nation depends on agricultural products to feed the public as well as maintaining a healthy economy. The sustainability of agriculture on the Delmarva Peninsula is an important aspect of the research conducted by UMES, where a balance is sought between protecting the Chesapeake Bay and insuring farms can continue to survive.   

    As a consequence, low-cost solutions have been developed from our research at UMES that have the potential to reduce phosphorus significantly from entering the bay, while at the same time insuring the sustainability of agriculture in the region. This important work is in keeping with our historic mission as a land-grant university.   

    Harmful algal blooms are a frequent occurrence in the Chesapeake Bay, usually seen as "mahogany tides" comprised of dinoflagellates and diatoms that bloom under the right conditions of nutrient loading, temperature and sunlight. While those organisms do not affect our drinking water, they do have an impact on the Ches