So, what was the Toledo Water Crisis?
In 2014, from the early morning (2:00 am) of Saturday, August 2 to 10:00am Monday August 4, Toledo residents were warned not to drink their tap water. A massive growth of toxic algae parked over the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant’s water intake pipe in western Lake Erie. This type of algae produces a toxin called microcystin (see the section below), which makes water unsafe for humans and animals to drink and in many cases even touch.
The drinking water ban sent panicked people rushing to buy bottled water. The city of Toledo quickly ran out, forcing thousands outside the city limits in search of water for their families. The crisis served as a wake up call to the eminent dangers from farm field and urban street runoff and sewage overflows and the resulting toxic algae that continues to plague Lake Erie and jeopardize our drinking water.
How Many People Were Impacted By This?
The water crisis affected nearly half a million people in the Toledo area and surrounding communities: Maumee, Northwood, Perrysburg, Rossford, Sylvania, Monroe County, Lucas County, and Fulton County
Microcystin, What the Heck is That?
Microcystin is the toxin produced by the cyanobacteria Microcystis. Several different species and variants of cyanobacteria exist and are often referred to as blue-green algae. Some toxins affect the skin (dermatoxin), others damage the central nervous system (neurotoxin), and some like microcystin harm the liver and kidneys (hepatotoxin).
Wait, how toxic is that stuff?!?
Microcystin is the most toxic of all cyanotoxins and ranks higher than cyanide, DDT or PCBs. This toxin causes liver and kidney damage, and is particularly dangerous to small children, the elderly and pets. Symptoms include abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, liver inflammation and hemorrhage, pneumonia, dermatitis and potential tumor growth promotion.
That's crazy, how did this happen?
Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients necessary to feed aquatic plants and organisms that provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and other life in the water. When there are too many nutrients, this causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle and then large blooms can occur. In western Lake Erie, the excess phosphorus feeds Microcystis causing it to grow out of control. When the bacteria die, it breaks apart releasing the toxin. At the time, the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant suspected microcystin may be at extremely high levels and began testing their treated water, which showed unsafe amounts.
So Where Does All That Phosphorus Come From?
The Maumee River accounts for the most phosphorus entering western Lake Erie, with the Detroit River coming in a close second. However, the Detroit River accounts for 80-90 percent of all Lake Erie’s water, while the Maumee accounts for just 5 percent. This means the concentrations of phosphorus from the Maumee River are really high. This is important because the high concentrations make it easier for the bacteria to consume the phosphorus.
In fact, the Maumee River accounts for nearly 50 percent of all the phosphorus entering western Lake Erie. The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force identified the Maumee River as the primary driver of basin’s toxic algae woes. This doesn’t mean phosphorus from other rivers is not a factor, it just means the Maumee has the biggest impact on the severity of toxic algae and when/ where it grows.
So looking at the Maumee River watershed, out of 4.2 million acres, 3.2 million are devoted to crop production. That’s a whole lot of agricultural activity, and when done irresponsibly, can lead to serious levels of pollution. There is also a lot of livestock in the area, though an exact count has not been done.
When farmers apply chemical fertilizers and manure in the springtime, ahead of a heavy rain storms, the fertilizer washes off the field or flows through drain pipes out into streams that feed the river. There are estimates that indicate this type of practice is responsible for 80-90 percent of all the phosphorus entering western Lake Erie!
It Sounds Like the Main Cause Was from Agriculture, Did Anything Else Contribute To This?
Scientists state that 65 percent of all the phosphorus entering Lake Erie comes from farm field runoff. So what about the rest of it?
Some phosphorus comes from sewage treatment plants that are allowed to discharge a certain amount each month. Another source comes from combined sewer overflows. Here, the stormwater that flows over city surfaces washes nutrients and other pollutants down street storm drains.
In a combined sewer overflow system or CSOs, these storm drains connect with the city’s sewer pipes. When there is too much storm water the treatment plants cannot take in all that water, and untreated waste empties directly into waterways through an overflow pipe.
Another source comes from faulty home sewage septic tanks. A 2012 Dept. of Health survey showed Ohio had over 628,000 home septic systems and at that time an estimated 31 percent were leaking untreated waste into the ground and streams.
It’s been a year, we don't really need to worry about it anymore, right?
Each year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues a forecast on a scale of 1-10 ranking the severity of the expected annual bloom season. This year NOAA severity index rating was 8.7, meaning we can expect a season more severe than 2014 when the rating was just 6.5. NOAA also issues a weekly update on toxic algae. You can see the latest one here.
So, what can we do to make sure this never happens again?
We know when there is less phosphorus entering the lake there is less of a chance of toxic algae. Since the major source is agricultural production, farmers and livestock operations need to do all they can to keep nutrients in the ground where they will grow crops and not in our water where it feeds algae.
Fortunately, farmers have a variety of options called Best Management Practices (BMP) that help prevent nutrient loss from their fields and help properly manage livestock waste. The best way to ensure these practices are used effectively is for each agricultural producer to develop and follow a plan that details practices for each field and operation. This includes testing the soil and matching the nutrient application to just what the crop needs to grow.
However, Ohio does not require these plans or that producers follow best management practices. Though farmers in the western Lake Erie watersheds are restricted from applying nutrients on frozen, snow-covered or saturated ground, and when the forecast predicts heavy rains, these restrictions do have some troubling loopholes and enforcement is a problem.
Yeah, But Can We Actually Accomplish That?
Certainly. Lawmakers can require all agricultural producers develop and follow nutrient plans that limit applications to just what the crops need to grow. They can also include requirements for all confined livestock operations to properly store, handle and utilize manure. Along with these requirements should be funding to help the experts assist each producer to develop those plans and to direct the Ohio Department of Agriculture to ensure those plans are being followed correctly.
Is There Anything I Can Do?
Call Governor Kasich, as well as your state lawmakers to urge they enact new rules for big agriculture.
Also, if you have a home septic system, you can make sure it is operating properly. For those living in cities connected to sewer lines, reducing the amount of water from your home will also help make a difference. This includes reducing stormwater by utilizing green infrastructure such as installing rain barrels and creating rain gardens; both help keep water out of the storm drains.