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

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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In Toledo's case, the water-treatment plant's outdated infrastructure has raised additional concerns.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."

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