Technology Assisting in Great Lakes HAB Research

A couple of great articles illustrate the ingenuity and valuable contribution technology cameras and drones are making in monitoring HAB and other activity in the Great Lakes.

The first, an underwater camera that was installed off the shores of Shorewood, WI, by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences  tracks activity beneath the water by providing camera shots every hour, over a period of four months.

The second, drones.

By getting well below cloud level, drones allow scientists to monitor HAB activity with incredible precision and photo clarity.

Drone view and 80-second video of Lake Michigan
Drone view and 80-second video of Lake Michigan

In the scientific battle to understand and ultimately take control of HABs, such technology-aided information is incredibly valuable. And, according to geology professor Joe Ortiz of Kent State University, the time has come: “I actually think the future is now,” Mr. Ortiz said. “We’re going to be seeing this within the next couple of years. Stay tuned for that.”

Dr. Harvey Bootsma, at UWM, agrees.

“It definitely has a scientific purpose,” said Bootsma, whose camera uncovered surprising insights into the impact of zebra mussels in Lake Michigan.

 

HAB Activity? Follow The Herd ….

I got curious today, after considering poor Toledo, Ohio’s ongoing battle with Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) in its Western Lake Erie drinking water source. And so, I posed a question: In OH, and WI, where are the preponderance of HABs? And, accordingly, where is the heaviest dairy production?

At the risk of making you, the reader, dig deep to find the information I gathered, I am going to here and now provide you with links to my reference articles:

Western Lake Erie Algae Bloom Projections

2007 State of OH Concentration of accepted Dairy Farm Permits (>700 cows)

Milk Production By County, Wisconsin, 2014

Toxic Algae Blooms On The Rise

And now, the unsurprising results from this search: wherever HABs are most impactful on a large scale (see: Toledo; see: The Green Bay of Lake MI), the largest presence of dairy cows and

UW-Milwaukee Students Sample Green Bay Waters
UW-Milwaukee Students Sample Green Bay Waters

milk production are either already dominant within the state (WI) — or are trending heavily in that direction (OH).

If best-practice standards for farmers remain marginally regulated, and farm operation regulations pale in comparison to what is required from municipalities, HABs will become an increasingly regular event with corresponding intensity.

In other words … this crappy situation is only going to get worse.

 

Kewaunee County, WI – A Crappy Situation.

In the discussion of Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB), there is perhaps no better location to reference than Kewaunee County, WI. As has been discussed in a previous CWW article, dairy farming is big business for this county with a population of about 21,000 people.

Really big business.

So much so that dairy cows outnumber the human population almost 4 to 1. That’s right. Nearly 80,000 dairy cattle, in one small WI county … with a vast Lake Michigan shoreline.

Now, if you are thinking that’s alot of cows, you are correct. And it has created a poopy situation which, despite the play on words, is actually incredibly serious.

As of 2016, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, fully one-third of all Kewaunee County wells are contaminated.

One-third.

In this terrific 2015 study conducted by The Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, mounds of empirical evidence supports the need for a better way of managing dairy cow manure. The well contamination is noted — in fact, this study proposed that it is one-half of the wells in the county that are contaminated — as well as the geological makeup of Kewaunee County; the rampant growth of dairy operations, and more.

All of it is useful information. But, for me, the most glaring number is this:

One cow generates at least 18 times the amount of waste as one human. Every day. 24/365.

Animal Manure On The Farm
Animal Manure On The Farm

And, while municipalities go to great lengths to control street runoff, waste from homes, etc., dairy farms have far less regulation and must meet far lower waste-management standards.

Imagine what the sanitation treatment landscape would look like if Kewaunee County held 360,000 people — making it the fourth most populated of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, instead of its current ranking of #52.

Do you see where this is going?

In the race to provide dairy products to a planet full of people, we are clearly trading freshwater for milk. Since it has been estimated that it takes some 40 gallons of fresh water to produce an 8 ounce glass of milk, that is an alarmingly one-sided deal.

One might even call it a waste.

 

Net Result of Farm Runoff? Algae Blooms.

As 2016 has meandered through its Spring and Summer months, various parts of the USA have demonstrated once again the all-too-familiar relationship between Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB) and agriculture.

The consistent and major culprit: farm runoff. This impressive study (2014) conducted by a consortium of State of Ohio Agencies comprehensively presents the impact of runoff as it exports excessive levels of phosphorus into waterways which eventually flow into lakes like Lake Erie (OH & MI), or Lake Okeechobee (FL), or Utah Lake (UT), or Pyramid Lake (CA).

A costly source of revenue
A costly source of revenue

It has been suggested to me, by various primary and secondary expert sources in WI and OH, that farm runoff from unregulated farms contributes 60% or more of the phosphorus load that creates HABs. I have thus far been given no quantifiable reason to question that estimate. In fact, I am inclined to move the figure higher still.

In an upcoming article I will discuss the disproportionate amount of manure a dairy farm with as few as 500 cows can create, in comparison with a city of people. Suffice to say, if I told you one cow on an unregulated farm can generate 1000 times more waste than one person living in a municipality with a satisfactory waste treatment system — well, that number is probably conservative.

And shocking.