Officials from the Macomb County Public Works Office gather samples from county drains to determine phosphorus levels.

Officials from the Macomb County Public Works Office gather samples from county drains to determine phosphorus levels.

Photo provided by Dan Heaton

Public Works commences phosphorus testing

By: Julie Snyder | C&G Newspapers | Published April 12, 2018

MACOMB COUNTY — Officials with the Macomb County Public Works Office have started a series of tests on county waterways, checking for levels of phosphorus, a natural element often used in fertilizers that can be harmful to lakes and streams if found in concentrated levels.

Initial testing on four county drains, conducted in January, all found phosphorus levels within accepted standards. County environmental engineers noted that January is a time when fertilizer usage and water run levels are low and would be expected to be at a normal level.

Additional tests will be conducted on the same county drains — the Apel Drain in Washington Township, the Neiman Drain in Lenox and Ray townships, the Crawford No. 2 Drain in Armada Township, and the Sterling Relief Drain in Sterling Heights — will be conducted several more times over the course of the spring and summer, when phosphorus levels are likely to be higher.  

Dan Heaton, Public Works Office spokesman, said the northern drains were chosen because they’re located in more agriculturally rich areas, and the Sterling Relief Drain was chosen because it’s the largest drain in the county.

“Excess phosphorus contamination stimulates growth of plants, fungi and bacteria, which can be a major problem for the health of Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes,” Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said. “By conducting these tests, which is something new for the Public Works Office under my administration, we can determine how, where and if we need to address the issue, either through public education, some kind of filtering, or both.”

Miller first worked on efforts to reduce phosphorus levels in the Great Lakes when she served as a member of Congress, and she successfully introduced legislation to limit allowable levels of phosphorus in water runoff from farms or other large users of fertilizers.

“This initial round of testing, even though it was conducted in an offseason for fertilizer use, is still great news. It means our farmers, not surprisingly, take their responsibility very seriously,” Miller said. “As we conduct additional testing, if and when we find hot spots, we can work with property owners to eliminate them.”

Almost all stormwater runoff in Macomb County eventually ends up in Lake St. Clair and travels from there into the lower Great Lakes. Algae blooms in the lakes, particularly Lake Erie, have been attributable, at least in part, to excess phosphorus levels.

Depending on the results of future testing, the Public Works Office is planning to install a filtering station in at least one county drain as a pilot project. The filtering station would use a form of gravel to absorb and reduce the phosphorus levels in running water in the drain.  

Heaton said that if that happens, it would likely take place at one of the northern drains, as they’re closer to farm areas. He added that future testing is weather dependent and will take place when the weather warms.