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Metro Detroit Feeding Lake Erie Algae

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Wednesday, February 22, 2012

INTRO: Green slime in Lake Erie has been getting worse every year. It’s caused by phosphorous running off the land into rivers. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports from Southwest Ontario where farmers have taken responsibility for their phosphorous. McCarus finds tight security on the American side of the border may be misdirected. Pollution is flowing from the U.S. to Canada.

Most of us don’t cross from Detroit to Windsor very often. But the people of Ontario are right there looking at us. Watching Michigan tv stations, listening to Michigan radio stations and trying to absorb the pollution we send them.

In the time it takes to drive from downtown Detroit to the Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, you could drive to Henry DeNotter’s farm. 35 miles from the Ren Cen. Just two miles from Lake Erie. DeNotter and another farmer are cranking a machine to load soybeans.

“Well I’ve seen the algae blooms and I don’t think you need to blame farmers, Canadian or American for doing that because I think all farmers are being a lot more conscientious about how fertilizer is being spread.”

Fertilizer contains phosphorous. Scientists say that’s what’s feeding the algae that looks like spilled green paint on the surface of Lake Erie.

“Pay attention to what’s going on when it’s wet. Don’t get out on the ground and some of the nutrient placement we’re more frugal these years. We don’t just go and dump a couple hundred pounds of fertilizer on the field. We really look at the field, test it and put the fertilizer where we need it. And try to put it right next to the plant so we can use it up right away.”

The town of Kingsville is nearby and right on Lake Erie. It’s frozen over and boats are up on shore. But when the ice is melted off, Henry DeNotter says, algae blooms will again be hurting fishing and tourism.

“Just big green globs of algae that they’ll stall an outboard motor.”

According to this scientist, Henry DeNotter and most farmers are not to blame.

“Well Henry scores very high. Henry is one of those really special farmers. He has a very close connection with the land. He understands a great deal about the interaction of soil, sunlight, moisture etc.”

Matthew Child is with the Essex Conservation Authority, a half hour east of Windsor. Child is less worried about the total volume of phosphorous. Some of it doesn’t even create the algae problem.

“Of the total phosphorous load that is going into the lake it consists of both an inorganic form that is difficult for life to access and use and a bio-available form which is much easier for plants to uptake. And that bio-available form has been increasing as a proportion of total phosphorous loads. Why? That is a very big science question.”

Southwest Ontario is a peninsula. It’s got water on 3 sides. The Essex Conservation Authority has modeled how fast pollution can get into drinking water.

“You spill a contaminant somewhere on the land and it can make it to that water plant intake within a couple hours and virtually the entire region is within three days.”

All of metro Detroit’s water drains to Lake Erie. The Belle, the Black, the Rouge River the Raisin. Paint Creek. 4 million people along these waters have the power to help or hurt Erie and Ontario.

“Many studies show that most urban land owners apply up to ten times the recommended rate of fertilizer. You get huge quantities of fertilizer being placed in urban areas where there’s a catch basin literally just a few feet away from the lawn. It gets flushed off in a rainfall. It all goes out into a water course that eventually drains to Lake St. Clair or Lake Erie in the case of our region and that adds to the algal issue. So it’s not strictly a rural issue.”

In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire from oil and chemicals.

In 1971, this public service announcement was made for the first Earth Day. A man appears in moccasins, buckskin, long hair and a feather. He canoes past smokestacks then pulls to a riverbank strewn with trash. He’s called the Crying Indian.

In ‘72, The U.S. and Canada reached the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It cut pollution from factories and sewers.

Phosphorous seeps through millions of square miles.  A new U.S./Canadian agreement will target it in 2012. But to get ordinary people’s attention, it will need more of the drama found on the water 40 years ago.

 

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Matthew Child,  researcher at the Essex Conservation Authority in Essex, Ontario

Matthew Child, researcher at the Essex Conservation Authority in Essex, Ontario

DeNotter is careful not to spread fertilizer that can run into ditches, out into Lake Erie and become food for algae blooms.

DeNotter is careful not to spread fertilizer that can run into ditches, out into Lake Erie and become food for algae blooms.

loading soybeans in wagon

loading soybeans in wagon

These soybeans are going to Japan. Global warming has thawed the fields in the winter. This prevents DeNotter from driving a semi-truck into the fields to load from the silo. They have to use a wagon pulled by a tractor then load small quanities into the truck.

These soybeans are going to Japan. Global warming has thawed the fields in the winter. This prevents DeNotter from driving a semi-truck into the fields to load from the silo. They have to use a wagon pulled by a tractor then load small quanities into the truck.

Essex Ontario Conservation Feb 2012 007
The DeNotter family farm was started by Henry's 80 year old dad in 1970. Henry has won several awards for land stewardship.

The DeNotter family farm was started by Henry's 80 year old dad in 1970. Henry has won several awards for land stewardship.

Urban and suburban environmentalists often accuse farmers of causing pollution. But because their livlihood comes from the land for generations, they often care for natural resources better than non-farmers.

Urban and suburban environmentalists often accuse farmers of causing pollution. But because their livlihood comes from the land for generations, they often care for natural resources better than non-farmers.

Sign posted on the garage

Sign posted on the garage

Henry DeNotter, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer near Kingsville, Ontario.

Henry DeNotter, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer near Kingsville, Ontario.

Algae blooms in Lake Erie began in the 1990's. They've grown worse each year.

Algae blooms in Lake Erie began in the 1990's. They've grown worse each year.

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