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Great Lakes Article:

Toxic algae is muscling into region
Zebra mussels make water more attractive to algae that can foul lakes
By Bob Downing
Akron Beacon Journal
Published August 9th, 2004


First came the mussels -- unwanted visitors to the Great Lakes in the late '80s that clog boat motors, cut the feet of swimmers, promote weed growth and work their way into inland lakes.

Now is there growing evidence of another danger: Those zebra and quagga mussels may be linked to outbreaks of dangerous toxin-producing algae on Lake Erie.

And the threat isn't just to Lake Erie.

Also at risk are the Portage Lakes, Berlin Reservoir on the Stark-Portage-Mahoning county line and Michael J. Kirwan Reservoir in eastern Portage County.

``It is a major concern,'' said Jeffrey Reutter, a Lake Erie expert at Ohio State University.

It's impossible to predict when or if the threatening blue-green algae will appear in inland lakes, but that is a definite possibility, he said.

Scientists are keeping a close eye on the blue-green algae -- the strain is known as microcystis -- and working to better understand the link between the nonnative mussels that invaded Lake Erie in 1988 and the return of the toxic blue-green algae.

It appears that the mussels release phosphorus, which triggers the algae blooms. Moreover, the mussels eat algae that would compete with the blue-green algae, Reutter said.

The toxin-producing blue-green algae were common in Lake Erie in the 1970s and 1980s before the United States and Canada cut releases of phosphorus. That happened after sewage plants were improved and farm fertilizer runoff was reduced.

Then came the mussels. Zebra mussels initially took over western Lake Erie. The quagga mussel has found a home in the deeper eastern parts of the lake.

Then, in 1996, the phosphorus levels again began to climb. And the toxin-producing algae began to reappear.

The inedible blue-green algae are harmful to humans and deadly to fish and animals that might drink their toxin. The toxin can cause vomiting, diarrhea and hepatitis-like symptoms including intestinal cramps and liver problems.

Although experts say one would have to consume large volumes of the toxin before it would be a threat, there isone confirmed American death from blue-green algae. A 17-year-old Wisconsin youth died in 2002 after swimming in a scum-covered pond. He went into shock and suffered a seizure before his heart failed.

In 1996, 75 people died in Brazil from the blue-green toxins.

The algae are starting to bloom in Maumee Bay, Sandusky Bay and near Put-in-Bay in Lake Erie and they're blooming earlier this year, a troubling sign, Reutter said.

They are likely to drift with the currents eastward.

The algae can create taste and odor problems with drinking water. Water systems will need charcoal filter systems to remove the algae, he said.

Lake Erie provides drinking water to 11 million people, including 3 million Ohioans.

Blue-green algae have also been found in numerous Michigan inland lakes filled with zebra mussels. Those lakes have more blue-green algae and more toxin than lakes with no mussels, reported Michigan State University researchers.

Ohio is not overly worried about the potential spread to inland lakes, said Joe Mion of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

That's because Ohio's inland lakes are significantly different from Michigan's lakes with more water flushing through Ohio's lakes, he said.

Mussels move inland

Zebra mussels were found in 1995 in East Reservoir and probably arrived while attached to a boat that had been on Lake Erie.

The mussels have also been found in Northeast Ohio at Hinckley Lake in Medina County, Mosquito Creek Reservoir in Trumbull County, the Grand and Chagrin rivers in Lake County, Wellington Reservoir in Lorain County and Shadow and Wallace lakes in Cuyahoga County.

The biggest problem resulting from the mussels in the Portage Lakes is the growth of underwater weeds.

The aquatic weeds -- actually Eurasian water milfoil -- are booming because the water is clearer thanks to the mussels.

Homeowners can spray to kill the annoying weeds, hire contractors who charge about $150 for weed removal or harvest the weeds themselves with a piece of weighted-down wire-mesh fencing that is dragged along the lake bottom.

There are no easy solutions to dealing with the mussels in the Portage Lakes, said Brian Andrews, manager of the Portage Lakes State Park.

``They're here to stay and the numbers appear to be leveling off,'' he said. ``But they're not going away.''

Not everyone is ready to declare mussel war.

``People are learning to live with them,'' said Tom Leighton of Leighton's Boat House Inc. with two locations. ``They're a nuisance but nothing you can't work around.... Zebra mussels are not a monster problem.''

There are no reports of the mussels' causing major problems on the dams and water-flow devices on the Portage Lakes, said Ron Gray of the Ohio Division of Water.

The mussels are helping the big red-eared sunfish in East Reservoir prosper.

That fish can crunch up zebra mussels with its sharp teeth and eat them, unlike most other fish species, Gray said.

``We're starting to think the zebra mussel might not be a serious problem,'' said Phil Hillman of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

The mussels also have been found in Michael J. Kirwan Reservoir east of Ravenna at West Branch State Park.

The infestation on the 2,650-acre lake has been called severe by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is likely to have an impact of the lake's ecology, so that is being watched, said spokesman Mike Fowles in the Corps' Pittsburgh office.

The mussels, first found in the lake in 1994, have encrusted rocks and solid surfaces but have not created operational problems, he said. ``That's surprising,... but a big problem has never materialized,'' he said.


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Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com

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