In June of 2006, I received a fellowship to sail from the Lake
Erie’s western basin to as far as the eastern basin in Erie,
Pennsylvania aboard the U.S. EPA’s research vessel Lake Guardian. The
Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence gave 16 educators a bunk
and three square meals for a week in exchange for us learning all we
could from microscopic explorations of lake-bottom muck, chemical
analysis of Detroit River water and deformed fish.
It was one of
the best weeks of my life. Unlike most of my shipmates, I didn’t
experience sea-sickness and found my sea legs the moment I came aboard.
Rather, it took about a week to rediscover my land-legs.
from us amateurs, down-and-dirty research passed us in the vessel’s
cramped corridors every day. In addition to biology and geoscience
professors from Ohio State, Gannon and Syracuse Universities, there was a
chemist from Niagra University investigating a mysterious, toxic thing
called cyanobacteria. This colorful, teeny thing, he said, had the
potential to devastate Ohio’s water, a resource that people in other
parts of the world — and in this country, for that matter — go to war
If we felt like it, we could volunteer to get up in the
middle of the night to help collect water samples for Dr. Boyer. When he
did find a sample that contained the fairly nondescript blue-green
algae, I took a blurry photo of it through the microscope and filed it
away where it took a back seat to gorgeous sunset images and my first
forays by kayak at Presque Isle.
That was less than a decade ago.
Now, most of us in Northwest Ohio have heard of blue-green algae. Its
presence has sickened humans and killed companion animals and tourism in
Grand Lake St. Marys, as well as most, if not all, of Ohio’s inland
stillwaters. Five days ago I received a Facebook message from a friend
saying people from Toledo were in Bluffton buying water. That night, the
drinking/bathing ban for Toledo was trending on social media — as big a
headline as you can get now.
In 2006, those scientists aboard the
Lake Guardian were considering all the sources that could contribute to
an increase in the presence of cyanobacteria in the Great Lakes. They
were isolating everything from failing combined sewer outflows to zebra
mussel urine. Eight years later, they’re pretty darn sure what the big
contributor is. The good news is that this industry is introducing
measures to combat the problem. The bad news is that, according to a few
off-the-record sources, it’s too late for inland lakes.
in-law who makes his home in Toledo isn’t concerned. “Once the wind
shifts, the big bloom will move out of the eastern basin” was his
response. If he wasn’t beyond arm’s reach, his still full head of hair
would be patchy, at best.
Maybe cyanobacteria is flammable. That seemed to work well on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland a few decades ago. You decide.
But make it quick.