Harmful Algal Blooms Causing Toledo’s Municipal Water Crisis
By Casey Spitzer, FLOW Intern
August 8, 2014
Fear and confusion spread quickly through the greater Toledo area in the early morning hours of Saturday, August 2nd when Ohio Governor declared a state of emergency that announced that the water was not safe to drink. Toledo’s water treatment plant—which provides water for some 400,000 people—was not successfully removing microcystin, a toxic chemical that can cause abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, and dizziness. Microcystin is a toxin produced by microcystis, a type of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria.
The crisis lasted nearly three days, which was more than enough time for most of the bottled water to sell out within an hour’s drive of Toledo. Even with many grocery stores diverting their shipments of water to Toledo and the National Guard bringing in vats of water, Toledo residents still faced a massive shortage. This unforeseen water crisis also affected many hospitals in the area as they were forced to postpone surgeries and sanitize supplies off-site.
Toledo Mayor Michael D. Collins, with a glass of Toledo water in hand, announced on Monday morning that the microcystin levels in the water had decreased to safe levels, marking the end of the water crisis.
I grew up greater Toledo area and know many people who struggled to find water last weekend. This summer, I have been researching and thinking about systemic issues like nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes as a summer intern at FLOW based in Traverse City. The silver lining to this story, however, is that this ongoing nutrient pollution issue in Lake Erie and beyond will hopefully become a priority in the public’s eye.
Nutrient pollution is caused by phosphates and nitrates (nutrients) leeching into the water through agricultural, storm water, or sewage runoff. These nutrients are added to farmlands as fertilizer to enhance crop growth. Once they are in the water, however, they cause harmful algae blooms (HABs), harm other forms of aquatic life by decreasing the dissolved oxygen levels in the water and creating “dead zones” for aquatic life. HABs also release toxic chemicals that can be dangerous to both animals and humans. The largest dead zone to date emerged in the summer of 2011.
I have lived next to the Maumee River for my entire life and just recently discovered that it is the largest nonpoint source (coming from many different sources including ag and municipal runoff) of nutrient pollution into Lake Erie. This explains why algae blooms have affected the area of the lake near Toledo the most. The scary thing is that we are at the very beginning of the algae bloom season, which typically runs until early November. The only reason why this bloom had such an impact is the result of a perfect storm: it just so happened to be blown to shore at the exact location of the water intake pump for the city of Toledo. This was actually considered to be a small bloom, and the algae levels are expected to peak in mid September.
Clearly nonpoint pollution is not a simple problem to address, as opposed to a point source of pollution, such as discharge from a factory. There are a series of agricultural best management practices (BMPs), such as avoiding tilling and planting buffer crops in the off season, but they are generally more expensive, and therefor less attractive. Given these challenges, it is of upmost importance for the state government to provide effective incentives for the farmers to use BMPs.
If we don’t do anything about this ongoing nutrient pollution issue, the water of Lake Erie will only continue to decline in quality and episodes like last weekend in Toledo will become the norm. Fresh water is one of the most vital resources for humanity, and the Great Lakes account for 20% of the fresh surface water in the world.
Personally I find it wholly unacceptable that this kind of largely unregulated pollution is still permissible in this day and age. This incident was the first time in decades that nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes region has had a major effect on a large metropolitan area. And I hope that it will serve as a catalyst for action where the public, industry, agriculture, and regulators can work together cooperatively to protect our most precious resource. With this issue literally in our backyards, it also is in our hands to prevent future crises like this.