Water quality improvement needed

Water quality in many of North Dakota lakes and rivers has been declining for several years and little, if anything, is being done to reverse a disturbing and dangerous trend. It is almost as if we have chosen to accept water laden with chemicals and algae to be the norm and that it will improve the following spring. It doesn’t and it hasn’t.

Recently cattle died from drinking water from Upper Des Lacs Lake on the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge. Tests showed the cattle ingested toxins produced by blue-green algae. A State Health Department spokesman told me the dangerous blue-green strains of algae have been occurring with more frequency and severity in state lakes and rivers for the past several years, yet we North Dakotans have done little or nothing to solve a looming crisis.

Crisis? I think so. So do the people of Toledo, Ohio, where the city’s water supply was recently shut down because of blue-green algae entering the system that originates in Lake Erie.

While blue-green algae can be found on many lakes and in bays throughout the state, evidence shows that it is becoming more and more widespread. I’ve seen blue-green algae outbreaks in the past, usually associated with botulism kills of shorebirds and waterfowl. The outbreaks were rare and unusual and generally small in nature. Not so anymore. We may see more blue-green algae form yet this year or we may not, but the threat remains and continues to grow. It’s only a matter of time before worst-case scenarios occur, such as poisoning a public water supply.

Many lakes are at high risk of summer fish kills due to algae outbreaks. Deer and assorted other wildlife that rely on lake and river water for drinking are vulnerable to dying from ingesting blue-green algae. So, too, are pets. Hunting dogs are particularly at risk with multiple deaths reported in recent years attributed to blue-green algae.

What I’ve learned about the matter from those far more informed than I is that more and more blue-green algae outbreaks can be expected unless action is taken to curtail triggering factors – primarily phosphorus. Phosphorus is a key ingredient in fertilizers used both for agriculture and residential purposes. In short, people apply fertilizer to the land and the rain washes it into our lakes and rivers which, in turn, causes massive algae blooms.

Nationally it is estimated that 80 percent of the phosphorus in lakes and rivers can be attributed to agricultural practices. Each watershed varies and some areas are worse than others, but unless something is done to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering our watersheds, the problem will only get worse – and it’s already alarmingly bad.

Some states have taken steps to alleviate the problem of phosphorus runoff and have met with some early success. The problem can’t be fixed overnight, but it won’t be fixed at all if there’s no desire to do so or no program in place to implement such a change.

Lake-home owners in Minnesota cannot use fertilizers containing phosphorus on their lawns. A small step, but a start. Still, even the massive Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota and Ontario is suffering unprecedented algae blooms. Wisconsin recently became so disgusted with algae blooms that they put a stop to phosphorus use.

Runoff from cattle feedlots and shoreline grazing have also been cited as major contributors to the phosphorus content in state waters. It doesn’t have to be that way. Various state agencies have assistance programs that fence off lakes and rivers while allowing cattle to still graze nearby. Water is pumped to holding tanks or stock ponds, thereby keeping cattle from defecating in the same water utilized by the public for fishing, recreation or drinking.

If we continue to look the other way in regard to water quality, we soon won’t have anything to look back upon. It is time for responsible agencies and citizens to take meaningful action to clean up our water before the task becomes all but impossible.

The State Health Department has drafted a plan designed to create a greater awareness of the problem of declining water quality and to set a path toward possible solutions. The International Joint Commission, the agency that oversees international waterways along the U.S./Canada border, says the situation is urgent but hasn’t put any teeth into enforcement. Deterioration in water quality, particularly due to phosphorus content, continues to increase.

While there may not be a single or simple solution to the problem, doing nothing is only waiting for the inevitable. It is not a pretty picture, is it?