David Hoppe

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:: The Ohio Riverís monster bloom

by David Hoppe

So I guess this is what’s called the new normal.

Unless you’ve been spending time along Indiana’s southern border, on the banks of the Ohio River, the odds are you don’t know about the epic algal bloom that’s turning the water there a scummy-looking pea soup green.

It’s being called the worst toxic bloom in the history of the Ohio River. Get this: It extends for 500 miles, from Wheeling, West Virginia, all the way to Louisville, Kentucky. Remember, this is the Ohio River we’re talking about, not some fishing hole, or subdivision retention pond.

The Ohio hasn’t suffered a toxic algal bloom in seven years. That one covered 30 miles and lasted two weeks. Experts say this year’s monster could be with us longer than that. Scheduled events on the river, especially anything that involves direct contact with the water, are being bumped into October.

That’s because contact with toxic algae can make you sick. Nausea, diarrhea, headaches, rashes, and liver damage are some of the ailments associated with it. Although health officials in river communities don’t appear to be concerned about the algae contaminating drinking water, in Toledo, Ohio, a massive toxic bloom in Lake Erie has forced residents to resort to bottled water for a second time in as many years, while employing an expensive carbon filtration system to drive toxin levels down to an acceptable limit.

Algae, of course, is always present in fresh water. It comes with the capacity to produce a toxin called microsystin. Toxic algal blooms are fed when an overabundance of certain nutrients find their way (or are dumped) into places where water flows. In many cases, those nutrients can be traced to fertilizers used in industrial-scale corn and soybean production, and suburban lawn care. The nitrogen and phosphorus in those fertilizers runs off and eventually finds its way into larger bodies of water, creating phenomena like the algal dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a result of run-off finding its way into the Mississippi River.

The Ohio River’s monster bloom appears to be the confluence of two reinforcing situations. First is the glut of nutrients being washed into the river from farms and other industries in its watershed. Then there’s the weather. The river usually flows at between ½ to 1 mph. This summer it’s been measured at less than ¼ mph, making it resemble a long, narrow lake. It’s also been warmer than usual. As the sun has shone down through the relatively still water, toxic algae has fed and bloomed — for miles and miles and miles.

The frustrating thing is that there seems little to do about this, at least from an official perspective. In Ohio, health officials say the best thing is to let nature take its course — wait for rain and cooler temps — because breaking up the algal cells risks releasing more poison into the environment.

But then what exactly do we mean by nature when our crops and lawns rely so heavily on the kinds of stuff that’s turned the Ohio River into a chemistry experiment? That may seem like normal; it’s not.