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A Toxic Algae Bloom Caused a Three-Day Ban on Water Usage for a Half-Million Residents in Toledo. Experts Say it's a 'Wake-Up Call' for Lake Erie 

Tainted bloom

America has a water problem. In California, there's not enough of it, with the state's severe drought continuing unabated — even in light of torrential downpours. In Detroit, the city's water department botched an aggressive campaign to shut off service to delinquent residents, drawing international condemnation and a mad scramble by city officials to save face. In West Virginia, earlier this year, nearly 300,000 families went without water for weeks, after thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled out from the facilities of a company called Freedom Industries, tainting the water supply of a nine-county region. Last month, in Flint, where residents pay about $140 per month for water, some raised alarms when their faucets started spewing discolored water. Four years after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, which sent over 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are still finding new evidence of the incident's damage. And, earlier this month, in Toledo, a toxic algae bloom managed to contaminate the water supply of nearly a half-million residents.

Adam Wagner, general manager of Barneys BP gas station on Ottawa River Road in Toledo, describes the panic he went through when his town announced a tap water ban after a high level of a toxin called microcystin was discovered. The decision changed weekend plans for residents in Ohio's fourth largest city and across four communities in southeast Michigan who connect to Toledo's Collins Park Water Treatment Plant for potable water.

Wagner, 29, has a 7-year-old son, a dog, and a girlfriend who has diabetes and needs to drink at least a gallon of water a day.

"It was like, 'What do we do?'" he says. An endless stream of questions raced through his head. For instance, how does Wagner tell his son, Kemper, not to wash his hands, only after telling him for so long that it's the right thing to do? Luckily, Wagner's father purchased some bottled water from the store soon after the ban was announced, and called to say he would drop off a supply. Wagner breathed a sigh of relief.

That, of course, wasn't the case for everyone. Thousands of residents drove across the state line as far as Ann Arbor to buy clean water. Others walked in droves to makeshift water stations posted across the city. Some sat in endless lines of idling cars, hoping the local store hadn't been emptied out. It was calm and chaotic all at once. Everyone stayed put until Toledo mayor D. Michael Collins went before a slew of cameras three days after the crisis began, raised a glass of clean water in the air, and said, "Here's to you, Toledo." But, even then, residents in areas where high levels of toxins registered weren't convinced the water was safe to drink.

As it turns out, Collins may have been aware of a potential liability in Toledo's water-treatment plant: A report from the Toledo Blade a week after the incident underscored the apparent infrastructure concerns. Records obtained by the newspaper showed the state's Environmental Protection Agency warned the city's mayor of an "imminent vulnerability" in Toledo's water infrastructure — though it's unclear if it's related to the algae issue.

"I cannot underscore boldly enough the precarious condition of Toledo's drinking water system and the imminent vulnerability to failure," Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director Craig W. Butler wrote in a June 9 letter to Mr. Collins, obtained by the Blade. Documents and emails obtained by the Blade showed the agency "had severe reservations about the plant for months leading up to the crisis," the newspaper reported.

It's not uncommon to find algae in lakes, but what causes the blooms to become harmful is a complex topic to digest and not entirely understood. Experts have been attempting to draw attention to Lake Erie's growing problem for years because, they say, it's imperative for officials and residents to begin to understand why the harmful algae blossoms.

In July, scientists issued a forecast saying this year's algae blooms would be "significant," according to a story in the Sandusky Register. That forecast rang true on Aug. 2, when the city's water-treatment plant discovered an excess of microcystin in its supply, prompting officials to ask residents to stop using tap water immediately.

If the problem isn't tackled head-on, experts say, Lake Erie could be headed down a long and tainted path.

Besides residents in Toledo, the apparent lack of action on the system's infrastructure forced 30,000 residents in four communities across southeast Michigan that connect to the city's water-treatment system — Bedford Township, Luna Pier, La Salle, and Erie Township — to keep the tap off, too. Officials and experts speculated microcystin had entered the supply stream after a pea-green-colored harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie blew into the area and onto Toledo's water-intake pipe.

For three long days, scenes played out across nightly broadcast news of big-box store shelves being emptied by frantic residents hoping to score the last pallet of water. Residents were told not to drink the water, bathe in it, wash their hands, brush their teeth — nothing. They couldn't even boil the water: It wouldn't have improved the conditions of the water, officials explained, and could've increased toxic levels. The state's National Guard delivered bottled water to the area, and distribution centers were stationed across the city to deliver clean water.

Standing next to Wagner outside the Barneys gas station, assistant manager Gary Beilstein says the toxic algae bloom has been ongoing in Lake Erie for years. Except this was the first time it infiltrated Toledo's water system.

"It's a wake-up call because now ... they're going to have to start addressing the problem," says Beilstein, 66.

First, though, officials and experts have to answer the question of what happened. It may take weeks to investigate, they say, before the real cause of the problem is known.

The harmful algae bloom — spawned by a number of causes, the least of which being phosphorus-enriched stormwater runoff from nearby industrial agriculture sites — is no stranger to Ohioans. In 2011, a record-setting toxic algae covered one-sixth of Lake Erie, affecting everything from Ohio's economy to fish populations. Last fall, a small township of 2,000 just east of Toledo endured the same fate as the state's fourth largest city, with water use being suspended for a weekend. Beach access at summer hotspots like Maumee State Park is routinely closed because of harmful algae bloom; the Columbus Dispatch reports nearly 20 public lakes in recent years have been affected.

The ban prompted a response from Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called on mayors from across the Great Lakes region to convene a summit on how to preserve the Great Lakes.

"Access to clean drinking water is something that all residents expect when they turn on the tap," Emanuel said in a statement. "The crisis in Toledo is a stark reminder that our work to protect this critical resource is never done. By convening the leaders of the municipalities that depend on this fresh water supply, we can most effectively discuss the strategies necessary to protect this vital water source for years to come." Toledo's mayor and a score of others pledged support to the idea, including beleaguered Cuyahoga County Executive and governor candidate Ed FitzGerald, who convened a summit with regional leaders this week to discuss Lake Erie's problems.

Experts echo Beilstein's point that it's a "wake-up call," that residents should be aware of a simple fact: Like a human being, the Great Lakes, which hold one-fifth of the world's fresh water, are showing symptoms of a festering disease.

Every year, the thick toxic algae coat blankets Lake Erie, and if it isn't addressed anytime soon, there could be serious consequences. The scene in Toledo, they say, is a prime example of what could come.

TO THE LAYMAN, microcystin (m-kr-sis'tin) is about as familiar as string theory. Before Toledo's short-lived water crisis, chances are few residents knew of the issues it could present to the area's water supply. The toxin is part of the cyanobacteria family, commonly known as blue-green algae, which grow in water and live through photosynthesis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause a number of unpleasant symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting and liver damage.

A half-century ago, because of toxic algae blooms, Lake Erie, which supplies over 11 million people with water, was considered dead and gone. After renowned cleanup efforts in the 1960s, the lake was restored to its former glory, thanks to regulations set under the federal Clean Water Act. As The New York Times reports, "The United States and Canadian governments responded by capping household detergent phosphates, reining in factory pollutants and spending $8 billion to upgrade lakeside sewage plants. Phosphorus levels plunged by two thirds, and the algae subsided. But in the mid-1990s, it began creeping back." Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, has been served up a dosage of nutrients from fertilizer on rural farms and septic tanks, compounded by climate change.

So why'd the algae return? For one thing, temperatures warmed up and rainstorms have increased, says Timothy Davis, a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.

"Warmer water temperatures, plus higher nutrients, generally lead to blooms that are more toxic," Davis explains.

With an estimated 70,000 farmers along Lake Erie's shoreline, agriculture is one of the major sources of nutrients, Davis says. Mixed with septic tanks that leak into water streams, the concoction generates the problem. In simple terms, Davis says, algae blooms are composed of cells that produce toxin — and cells that don't.

"There are environmental conditions that change the ratios of those cells," he says, "so there are some conditions that cause toxic cells to dominate ... and then there are other conditions that cannot produce toxins."

In Toledo, the toxic cells took hold after wind blew the harmful algae bloom over Toledo's water-intake pipes, according to experts.

Another issue, as the Times reports, is the presence of zebra mussels, which "feast on nontoxic green algae, removing competitors to the toxic Microcystis algae ... Then in a vicious cycle, mussels excrete the algae's phosphorus, providing the Microcystis a ready-made meal." In essence, the invasive species makes conditions ripe for the harmful algae bloom to thrive.

That cycle forced Toledo resident Sara Bauman to close her restaurant, Grumpy's, for one day to flush out the structure's pipes. But it wasn't just the water ban that worried her.

"Most concerning is, I think parts of Toledo knew about it before we did," says Bauman, 53.

Bauman says one of her dishwashers told her that another restaurant he worked for received information that toxins had been found in the water on July 31, two days before the ban went into effect.

"None of us got the information, I think, until 2 o'clock on Saturday [Aug. 2]," she says. If that was indeed the case, that sort of communication is "a little disheartening," she says.

Chemists at the Toledo water plant first registered a high reading of microcystin in the early evening of Aug. 1, according to a 73-page preliminary report of what happened that weekend from Toledo's department of public utilities, so it's unknown whether that restaurant happened to catch the early action of a tainted water supply.

Bauman, who lives near Grumpy's, says her community flocked to the impromptu water station at nearby Central Catholic High School. It was a rather unusual moment, she says.

"It's strange to watch thousands of people walking to get fresh water," she says.

THERE ARE a number of potential treatments for Lake Erie's disease. Earlier this year, the International Joint Commission, an agency focused on issues in the Great Lakes, released a report detailing a number of recommendations to prevent harmful algae bloom from blossoming.

Davis, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says, "Really, what it comes down to is management policy."

That may be needed, fast. Davis says if we were to cut all nutrients right now, we could still see algae blooms in Lake Erie for the next decade.

"We know high nutrients are one of the culprits ... because there are so many nutrients in the lake," he says.

The IJC report brought to light a number of possible solutions for the U.S. and Canadian governments, such as setting maximum limits of phosphorus-enriched runoff, implementing best management practice programs to reduce runoff, more frequent inspections of septic systems, and promoting the use of so-called "green infrastructure" in urban environments, such as rain gardens and stormwater ponds. Stormwater soaks up nutrients from numerous sources — for instance, lawn fertilizer and cleaning agents — which, with green infrastructure, can be reduced "often at a lower cost" than traditional infrastructure, the report says.

Says Davis: "We need to continue these land management practices to [reduce] the number of nutrients coming into Lake Erie with agriculture. But, also, residents ... even if you can't see the Great Lakes from your house, we have to understand that we kind of [have] a personal responsibility, too."

In light of the incident, however, farmers contended that mandates wouldn't serve as a remedy to the situation.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Mary Kelpinski, executive director of the Michigan Pork Producers Association, said legislation regulating farmers would be ineffective, citing their "diverse" operations. Farmers don't want to "be dictated to," she told the Freep.

Ken Nobis, president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, told the newspaper that dairy farmers have already been reducing phosphorus runoff by, for instance, decreasing nutrient levels in cattle feed. Farmer groups pointed to more frequent rainstorms and antiquated infrastructure as some of the leading causes of the algae problem, according to the Freep's story.

In Toledo's case, the water-treatment plant's outdated infrastructure has raised additional concerns. Plants use a chemical called "activated carbon" to absorb the algae before the filtration process begins, the Associated Press reports. One lawmaker told the Columbus Dispatch that Ohio's heavy rainfall could have filled the water and sewage treatment plant up with more than it could process.

"You're probably going to see a lot of screaming going on over infrastructure of sewer plants," state Rep. Dave Hall, a Republican of Millersburg, told the Dispatch. "Infrastructure is one of the issues we're going to have to address."

Of course, like Detroit, whose water and sewer system is currently at the center of a heated discussion over the possibility of a private owner assuming day-to-day operations, updated infrastructure is expensive.

In Ohio, Hall suggested to the Dispatch that revenue from a new severance tax on fracking not yet approved by the Legislature could be diverted. The bill would set a 2.5-percent tax on shale fracking, the Dispatch reports, essentially taxes levied on oil extractors. (It bears mentioning that there's evidence and concerns of contamination from fracking, even in Ohio, though none of the confirmed cases of water contamination in the state were related to it, the Associated Press reports.)

"Crumbling and outmoded infrastructure causes several problems that can pollute Great Lakes beaches," according to a report from the National Resources Defense Council. The report points to a finding from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which says about $100 billion in investment is needed over the next two decades "to achieve a basic level of functionality."

The fact that the harmful algae doesn't peak until September has some operators worried about an incident similar to Toledo's before year-end. If Mother Nature does bring about winds that blow the algae over the city's water-intake, then it could become problematic.

As one engineer put it to the Associated Press: "There's a train coming and we're standing on the track."

Cleveland's four water treatment plants were and are continually monitoring satellite imagery to gauge the bloom and Erica Creech of the water department told the Plain Dealer those facilities are watching "incoming lake water for any indication of problems."

Richard Stumpf, an NOAA oceanographer, points out that a bloom has occurred in Lake Erie annually over the past decade. It remains to be seen if the cause of the contamination this year stems from infrastructure problems, he says.

"If you look at 2011," Stumpf says of Toledo's contamination, "they didn't have this ... Some combination came up this year. They're clearly capable of handling stuff, and something happened this year that's unusual."

DAVIS isn't seeking to be an alarmist, but he says Toledo may very well be a new normal — at least, for the foreseeable future.

But there are other concerns besides contamination. Some recent reports have focused on the fact that investors are interested in making water the next big commodity. As the Guardian reports, the leader of the pack is Nestle chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck. His efforts tie into California's ongoing drought, says writer Suzanne McGee.

"[T]here are the bizarre mixed messages that some California residents are getting: don't water your lawns in the state's long-running drought that has depleted its aquifers," McGee writes. "On the other hand, some are being warned they'll be fined if they don't keep their lawns and neighborhoods looking nice."

And, McGee continues, although Brabeck may be right to argue that the world's freshwater supply is at risk due to thoughtless use, he's not a bright shining example, either.

"Consider the fact that as [California's] drought has worsened, Nestle's Nestle Waters North Americas Inc. division — the largest bottle company in the country — has continued to pump water from an aquifer near Palm Springs, California, thanks to its partnership with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians," McGee writes. "Their joint venture, bottling water from a spring on land owned by the band in Millard Canyon has another advantage: since the Morongo are considered a sovereign nation, no one needs to report exactly how much water is being drawn from the aquifer."

So what's the impact when a water ban goes into effect for communities surrounded by 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply? It's a rich irony, yet officials and residents had little time to digest that thought earlier this month. There were more urgent matters at hand, such as ensuring everyone could access clean water.

Greg Stewart, supervisor of Michigan's Bedford Township, recalls the moment he found out about the ban like someone remembering where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot. It was the morning of Aug. 2, he says, and he was sitting down for his first cup of coffee. His grandson was hell-bent on watching cartoons, but that was abruptly interrupted.

Upon hearing news of the ban, Stewart, 64, jumped into action and headed to Bedford Township Hall.

"I'm actually very proud because we were handing out water before Toledo was," Stewart says.

The township's volunteer staff of firefighters jumped into action and drove a number of trucks into Monroe County for clean water, a group Stewart says "really should get all of the credit."

Sprawled out on the table in the middle of Stewart's office was an emergency manual. He acknowledges the chance of a similar incident occurring anytime soon is unknown, but says it's better for township administration to be as prepared for the "least likely events" as it is for the most common. "There's a lot more factors that man can control," he says. "It's just about what nature is gonna do."

Besides residents, local hospitals had to cope with the ordeal. Metropolitan Toledo hospitals have backup water systems for such emergencies, the Toledo Blade reports. But some had to serve patients a cold breakfast with bottled water, according to published reports.

For Henry Battah, who runs a grocery store on Dixie Highway in Erie Township, the situation brought in increased traffic. He says he doesn't want to gloat about it, but the water ban brought about the best business Battah will do this year — water, booze and food all flew off the shelves. And, he insists, prices weren't gouged.

"The parking lot was parked like crazy," says Battah, 41. Some people handled the situation calmly, while others responded in prompt Y2K fashion. When his shop ran out of its initial supply of water, Battah says a woman told his brother, a coworker, "You're full of shit."

"She started talking stupid," Battah says.

To replenish their supply, two employees went to a nearby Sam's Club to purchase more water, he says, a process that took three hours. Still, Battah says, customers waited outside his shop, "just for water!"

Battah says: "People act like it was the end of the world, man."

Three days after the ban was lifted, some residents were still concerned about the quality of their water. One woman, who lives off Telegraph Road, just inside the Ohio border, declined to give her name, but did say this of Toledo's Mayor Collins: "No one believes him."

The woman stands before an eclectic mix of goods she's trying to sling at a yard sale — on a Wednesday. ("They said it was gonna rain all week.") She says her two children who live in Bedford Township were still using bottled water.

"It still looks exactly the same," she says of their water. She offers a suggestion for Toledo's mayor if he really wanted to drive his point home that the city's water was fine to drink: "I'd believe [Collins] if he had turned on the faucet."

UNDERSTANDING THE impact of harmful algae bloom is fascinating for those like Davis, of the NOAA. The complex ecology of the algae is something scientists still have much to learn about, he says. For those trudging through the daily 9-to-5 grind, most don't have time to sink their teeth into the implications of the toxic bloom on the Great Lakes.

When asked why the matter should be of importance to everyday people, Davis pauses for a moment. He says he knows everyone who lives around the Great Lakes takes a sincere pride in the massive bodies of water. But, he says, "It seems as though we've forgotten how important the Great Lakes are to us, and to the world. So when you look at these blooms, and you look at their impact, I think Toledo was definitely a wake-up call to residents."

And it's not only a recreational issue, Davis says of the closures at beaches due to the harmful algae. "But they can actually impact the quality of life," he says. "It can impact my ability to have clean drinking water."

If nature manages to re-create the elements of what took place earlier this month, it's not out of the question to consider another water emergency happening by the end of the year, sending those 30,000 residents in southeast Michigan and hundreds of thousands in Toledo scrambling for clean water. As one expert put it to the Detroit Free Press: "We may be looking at the beginning of the season, as it continues to grow."

Davis adds: "Hopefully we can use this new public awareness ... not to point fingers and lay blame, but to work together as a community, both scientists and citizens, to slowly bring our Great Lakes back to being great, being healthy."

Back inside her restaurant in downtown Toledo, Sara Bauman reflects on the water ban, something she found "disturbing," considering the city's locale and proximity to Lake Erie.

It's lunchtime, and Grumpy's is beginning to hum with a peak hour rush of activity. She's happy the water is flowing again, but the now prevalent concern of a harmful algae bloom that keeps returning every summer has her feeling apprehensive. Asked if it's a concern that, even with a growing number of people raising red flags about the situation, no one seems to have taken action yet to even begin tackling the problem, Bauman promptly responds.

"We're fucking it up," she says. "Those things are very concerning."

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