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Environmental Agencies Allocate Over $700M to Combat Toxic Algae Blooms in Great Lakes

State and federal agencies are working to attack a problem that contributed to a water crisis in northwestern Ohio last year: too much phosphorus in the Great Lakes.

An overabundance of phosphorus, due in part to fertilizer runoff, is one of the ingredients in the formation of algae blooms. It enables algae growth, which can contribute to fish die-offs and other environmental impacts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said.

One of those impacts last year was the water crisis in the Toledo, Ohio, area, where residents were asked not to use the water for cooking, drinking or bathing.

Indiana, Michigan and Ohio will work with the USDA through the Tri-State Lake Erie Basin Phosphorus Reduction Initiative to identity watersheds for phosphorus reduction and to help farmers with technical assistance in reducing phosphorus levels.

Sunlight, calm water and higher temperatures are also needed to aid in the algae bloom formations.

"Lake Erie, especially its western basin (and thus Toledo area), is very shallow given its great size and is the most sensitive among the Great Lakes to becoming exceptionally warm during summer heat waves," AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Jim Andrews said.

The project is one of 115 conservation projects in the U.S. and Puerto Rico funded under the USDA's new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 14.

Not all algae blooms are harmful, but some produce toxins that may affect the liver, nervous system and skin, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) said.

If people touch one of the harmful blooms, swallow water with toxins or breathe in water droplets, they could get a rash, have an allergic reaction, get a stomachache, or feel dizzy or light-headed, the OEPA said. The blooms also are toxic to pets.

"The lake has suffered from nutrient pollution for years, including last year's water crisis that left 400,000 residents in the Toledo, Ohio, area without water to drink, bathe or cook ... from providing clean drinking water to employing thousands of people in the tourism industry, the health of Lake Erie affects nearly every aspect of life in the region," Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden said in an USDA blog post.

A second Great Lakes project will focus on the Saginaw Bay Watershed, part of Lake Huron, another area affected by algae blooms.

The projects will receive more than $370 million from the federal government, which was made possible through the 2014 Farm Bill, as state and local agencies add an estimated $400 million more for the work, the USDA said.