An Empty Glass City After Toxins Triggered a Drinking Water Ban in Toledo

Harmful algal bloom. Kelley's Island, Ohio. Lake Erie

Early on Saturday morning, August 2, the water in Ohio's fourth-largest city was judged too toxic to drink  after high levels of microcystin were found in Toledo's water supply after treatment. The deadly toxin, a product of algae blooms on Lake Erie, had survived an eight-step water treatment process. That's troubling enough. What's worse: the EPA has no limit set for such toxins in US drinking water. So officials routinely use the World Health Organization gauge, a recommendation that concentrations be held to 1.0 parts per billion (ppb) or less, to ensure consumers' safety amidst the longstanding threat of poisonous algae.

Lake Erie's annual algae bloom isn't yet at its peak levels, which usually occur in early September. The week prior, strong winds kicked up waves that drove the algae closer to shore and right into Toledo's water intakes. On Sunday, US Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) reported that a US EPA official had told her it was believed there had been a spike of 3.0 ppb; the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department's figure was at 1.5 ppb to 2.5 ppb. (Either way: unsafe.)

So it was a surreal weekend for the "Glass City" as residents of Toledo and suburbs across three counties ranging into southeastern Michigan waited in long lines for bottled drinking water at stores and distribution centers. (The ban was lifted Monday morning after follow-up tests showed lowered levels of the deadly toxin.) As during a similar water safety crisis in West Virginia earlier this year, many took to social media to vent frustrations, share information and commiserate about the situation.

Microcystin grows from cyanobacteria that naturally occur in Lake Erie and similar, generally shallow bodies of water nationwide. What's not natural: the amount of blue-green algae that spread widely, covering parts of Lake Erie like a scummy, foul-smelling carpet each year. Agricultural runoff, courtesy of manure and fertilizer, pours into the lake and feeds the algae along with the hot summer sun. Sewage treatment plants and combined sewer runoff drains in aging cities and runoff from fertilized residential lawns along the lake also fuel the toxic brew. In the case of Lake Erie, invasive species like the zebra mussel eat the nasty bugs' natural predators, also enabling their virulent growth.

So it was a surreal weekend for the "Glass City" as residents of Toledo and suburbs across three counties ranging into southeastern Michigan waited in long lines for bottled drinking water at stores and distribution centers.

Toledo's is the largest crisis yet - although last year, a township east of Toledo had to ban water use for its 2,000 residents after tests revealed a similarly high level of toxins released by the algae blooms. Even before tainting our drinking water, the algae have been wreaking havoc for quite a while. A 2012 FERN report cited over one billion dollars in economic damages each year from lost recreation and property damages nationwide. (And you may have seen tragic stories about people's beloved pets dying after exposure to such toxins.)

Last year, Ohio's governor John Kasich struck $300,000 from his $63 billion budget which was to be allocated to Ohio Sea Grant, which monitors Lake Erie's health and campaigned during the 1980s to enact phosphate bans crucial to recovering the lake's health. In 2012, Ohio Sea Grant's director Jeff Reutter said that Lake Erie had gone from the "poster child for pollution problems to the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery" - but continued funding was needed to prevent further backsliding into polluted territory. Kasich also made headlines earlier this year when he signed a rollback of renewable energy supports - the first such pushback enacted by any state in the US.

Indeed, Reutter said Sunday that phosphorus levels in the lake were right back to where they'd been in the bad old days of the 1970s. Scientists have been warning officials for years about the toxic problem brewing offshore. In a new report this year, the International Joint Commission, an agency of Canadian and American officials, warned that steps needed to be taken to reduce phosphorus loading in the lake by 37 percent each spring. (Specifically, the phosphorous from agricultural uses, as the main source of phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie arises from this non-point source.) One of the commission's suggestions: banning the spread of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground, which farmers now do just before spring each year since it's easier to drive heavy equipment over hard, frozen ground.

It's this farming connection that's fueling the latest Clean Water Act controversy, critically connecting Toledo's problem - and any solution - with overall environmental regulations. This spring, the US EPA announced a new draft rule clarifying which waters fall within their jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The new rule, developed with the US Army Corps of Engineers, is designed to empower the agency to go after the big polluters ruining our bodies of water and helping to feed these algae blooms nationwide. (Some of whom, yes, include Big Ag.) The American Farm Bureau Federation has been using social media and other platforms to argue that the rule represents a dramatic overreach of power by the federal government, with their president even calling it "the biggest federal land grab" to date. (Industry arguments are driven by claims that the EPA now has jurisdiction over "puddles" on people's farms.)

Writing in Esquire's politics blog, Charles P. Pierce noted: "this is the second time in a year in which environmental damage has deprived an American city of its drinking water for a substantial period of time; we recall that Huntington, West Virginia was boiling and bottling thanks to the efforts of Freedom Industries. We have had wars for gold. We have had wars for oil. We next will have wars for water, provided, of course, that there's any left that's fit to drink."

Hopefully, it will not come to that. "We have not been good stewards of this natural resource," Toledo Mayor Michael Collins said Monday. In that sense, the new Clean Water Act rule couldn't have come at a more important time to help protect one of the world's great freshwater resources. Any strides made in changing to sustainable farming practices could also be a huge help so that the Glass City's glass always remains at least half-full.

For more info:

A worthwhile read: Craig Cox has a post at Environmental Working Group, "It's Time to Regulate Farm Runoff."

Chris Gobler (one of Our Heroes) is an expert on toxic algae blooms. Hear his overview of the problem in this podcast recorded with GRACE's Kyle Rabin.

For more photos from Ohioans during the Toledo drinking water ban, please see the Ohio Sierra Club Twitter feed and this Storify from the Columbus Dispatch.

See this outstanding overview of the algae blooms from Circle of Blue.


Image "Harmful Algae Bloom. Kelley's Island, Ohio. Lake Erie." by T. Archer, courtesy of NOAA GREL on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.