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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"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.


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