by Dr. Patrick Lawrence
As most people are aware, in the early morning hours of Saturday August 2nd, over 500,000 residents of the City of Toledo and surrounding communities awoke to the shocking news that their drinking water was contaminated and unsafe for consumption. For many the impacts that the annual blooms of green-blue algae in the western Lake Erie basin can have on their drinking supply came as a surprise. However, alarms over this potential disaster had been raised by many professionals and concerned citizens for over a decade.
Suddenly, the need to provide safe drinking water became a major issue, along with the need for many volunteers and efforts to secure bottled water and other sources of drinking water, and over the following two days provide and deliver that water to those in need. A major environmental and human health crisis was at hand.
Although the emergence of these blue-green algae blooms have occurred on Lake Erie for many years, over the last decade concerns were raised as the blooms increased in size, density in the water column and the length of time they remaining persistent in the western basin of Lake Erie during the late summer and early fall months. The breakdown of the algae at the surface can result in the release of a harmful toxin – Microcystin - into the lake water. Even at very, very small amounts (1 part per billion or the equivalent of one drop into a swimming pool), this toxin can cause serious impacts to human health if ingested.
In other locations around the United States and the world, similar cases of the growth of blue-green algae blooms and release of toxins have been observed and documented, including in Africa and China. These blooms are found naturally in the environment in ponds, lakes and rivers, but the situation has been a significant problem as human sources of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrates, coming from various land uses and activities has resulted in excess amounts of these nutrients into water bodies, “feeding” the growth of the green algae present. The typical human sources can include runoff of water and sediment from agricultural farm fields, human and animal wastes, and from fertilizers applied on residential lawns. Fortunately, after two days of further analysis of additional samples, discussion among federal, state and local officials and experts, and increased treatment at the City of Toledo Water Treatment Plant, the drinking water supply was deemed again safe for use.
But many questions and concerns remain, with answers often limited or lacking. Of particular importance is how the community can move forward with the reassurances that these problems will not occur in the future and what steps can be taken to resolve the situation. Options that need to be discussed and considered include the need to improve, expand and modernize the City of Toledo water treatment infrastructure - at an estimated cost of up to $1 billion - and means by which to reduce the amount of nutrients entering into the western Lake Erie basin from the Maumee Rive and other sources.
In terms of land management within the 6,000 square mile watershed of the Maumee River that drains into the western Lake Erie, the options and solutions to address nutrient runoff are many. Examples include more extensive use of no-till farming and buffer strips to keep the soil and nutrients on the farm fields; improved oversight of animal waste storage and applications and the operations of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Farm Operations); establishing wetlands and other bio-retention features to hold and filter water and sediment; and employing best management practices for fertilizers by farmers and residential landowners. The opportunities are many, the methods and techniques are well known and studied. What is now needed is the public pressure and political will power to act.
Moving forward the citizens of Toledo, and many other impacted cities in Ohio and along the Great Lakes, will need to make some hard decisions to tackle this complex problem and continue to press elected officials and government agencies into meaningful actions that will have effective impacts on ensuring that for future safe drinking water can be provided for all.
Partners for Clean Streams Inc., including our board, staff, members and the many agencies, groups, and citizens who work with us, remain committed to participating and engaging in the needed public and political dialogue that will be required to see steps taken so as to keep our rivers, streams and lakes drinkable, fishable, boatable and swimmable for everyone in our communities. Please consider joining us in this important endeavor and help preserve and protect your water.