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Toledo’s drinking-water crisis traces a bad trend line on algae’s toxic blooms

Agricultural runoff is reversing a half-century of progress on controlling industrial and municipal pollution.

Volunteers unload drinking water from a truck outside Waite High School in Toledo, Ohio, on Sunday.
REUTERS/Joshua Lott

In a way — a grotesque, sad, outrageous way — the weekend drinking-water crisis in Toledo and its suburbs marks one end of a narrative arc for water quality in Lake Erie and most of the United States.

The other, earlier end can be fixed in the summer of 1969, when an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River caught fire a bit upstream from its confluence with the great lake, at Cleveland.

It wasn’t the first such fire on an American river, nor even the first on the Cuyahoga, but it got the attention of Time magazine, whose resulting  cover story put Lake Erie’s plight into the nation’s consciousness, and conscience, with passages like this:

Some lake! Industrial wastes from Detroit’s auto companies, Toledo’s steel mills and the paper plants in Erie, Pa., have helped turn Lake Erie into a gigantic cesspool. Of 62 beaches along its U.S. shores, only three are rated completely safe for swimming. Even wading is unpleasant; as many as 30,000 sludge worms carpet each square yard of lake bottom.

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Because of its Cuyahoga imagery — “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows …” — the piece is often remembered as a call to action on industrial and chemical pollution. In fact, it was mostly about algae, algal blooms and nutrient flows:

Cleveland’s great industries have lately made efforts to dump fewer noxious effluents into the Cuyahoga. If their record is still not good, the city’s has been far worse. Whenever it rains hard, the archaic sanitary storm system floods the sewer mains, sending untreated household wastes into the river… .

Each day, Detroit, Cleveland and 120 other municipalities fill Erie with 1.5 billion gallons of inadequately treated wastes, including nitrates and phosphates. These chemicals act as fertilizer for growths of algae that suck oxygen from the lower depths and rise to the surface as odoriferous green scum.

Commercial and game fish — blue pike, whitefish, sturgeon, northern pike — have nearly vanished, yielding the waters to trash fish that need less oxygen. Weeds proliferate, turning water frontage into swamp. In short, Lake Erie is in danger of dying by suffocation.

Urban and suburban efforts

Thanks to the Clean Water Act and other landmark laws that followed shortly on the Cuyahoga fire, Lake Erie and other waters came back from the dead or dying over next few decades.

But not without great effort and expense — borne, in the case of sewage treatment and stormwater controls — by urban and suburban taxpayers. (Cleveland, for example, was poised in 1969 to spend $100 million overhauling its sewage system, a project approved 2-to-1 by voters whose monthly bills would double as a result; can you imagine that happening today?)

Now the algal blooms are coming back in force, not only in Lake Erie but across the U.S. — including, in Minnesota, the northern border lakes from Rainy to Lake of the Woods, the lower St. Croix River, and the occasional neighborhood lake that sends a thirsty dog to its death.

Despite bans on phosphate lawn fertilizers and detergents, and promotion of rain gardens and other runoff controls, part of the problem can still be traced to urban stormwater and to failing septic and small-town sewer systems. But nowadays the biggest source by far is agriculture — or what the Toledo Blade tends to reference, interestingly and aptly, as “the agricultural industry”:

The alarm sounded with Grand Lake St. Marys four years ago. The alarm just heard in Toledo was much louder, but critics argue that the agricultural industry, lawmakers, and bureaucrats are still moving too slowly to address the causes of toxic algae growth in Lake Erie.

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That’s the lead from an assessment published Tuesday of how Ohio is, or isn’t, dealing with the source of phosphorus pollution that led to a half-million Toledo households and businesses being told their water wasn’t safe to drink (or use for cooking, bathing or dishwashing), because of bacterial contamination from an algae bloom, from Friday night through Monday morning.

This wasn’t a particularly big bloom by recent Lake Erie standards, nor was it the first to shut down one of Ohio’s municipal water systems — last September, the system serving 2,000 people in Carroll Township was shut down for four days for the same type of contamination, microcystic bacteria produced by blue-green algae.

But because it happened to form right about where the Maumee River delivers water to the lake, and where Toledo’s intake pipe pulls it back out again, this one caused more trouble and got more attention.

And yet, though there is general agreement that the problem is traceable primarily to fertilizer runoff from farm fields, and manure runoff from cattle feedlot operations, the state’s major response has been to offer more training to farmers and seek voluntary adoption of runoff-reducing practices, while exempting feedlots from even those programs.

Last spring, lawmakers unanimously passed Senate Bill 150, seen as a key step in addressing the nutrient-runoff problem considered to be a major player in the recurrent toxic algal blooms on Lake Erie. The law would require state certification for the application of chemical fertilizers on farms of 50 or more noncontiguous acres. The state hopes to submit proposed rules for review later this month.

Even when fully implemented, the rules will not be mandatory until Sept. 30, 2017, and won’t touch on the application of manure as a fertilizer on frozen ground.

Meanwhile, the people of Toledo and surrounding areas are being urged to limit  showers, laundry and dishwashing, and forgo car-washing at home altogether, to reduce demand on the city’s water system as it undergoes further decontamination and repair.

Earlier Ohio incident

Curiosity about the Grand Lake St. Marys incident referenced by the Blade led me to a good survey piece published in September 2012 by Jessica Marshall, with sponsorship from the Center for Investigative Reporting (and adapted by ABC’s “World News Tonight”).

She features the experience of Danny Jenkins, who endured two years of medical problems, including partial paralysis, from encephalitis he contracted by swimming in a lake tainted with blue-green algae toxins (which also killed his dog). Excerpts:

Blooms have closed lake beaches or led to swimming advisories from Vermont’s Lake Champlain to Dorena Reservoir in Oregon and from Florida’s Caloosahatchee River to Wisconsin’s Lake Menomin. In addition to the health risks, the blooms take an economic toll. An estimate by Walter Dodds of Kansas State University conservatively puts the annual cost of freshwater algal blooms at more than $1 billion from lost recreation and depressed property values. …

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Looking for the source of the problem, experts point to agriculture: Phosphorus-laden fertilizer and manure can wash directly into waterways, and eroding sediment from farmlands carries the substance, too. In addition, flows from sewage treatment plants and urban storm drains, runoff from lakeside lawns, and discharges from industries such as pulp and paper mills also can contribute phosphorus to streams and lakes.

But why are the blooms getting worse? Reutter points primarily to changes in agricultural practices. Many farmers now apply fertilizer and manure to their fields when the ground is frozen in winter, he said, because it’s easier to drive equipment over the hard surface.

Climate change is also part of the picture, said Richard Stumpf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md. “The longer the warm period you have in the summer, the more likely you are to have (blooms),” he said, especially if hot, dry conditions follow intense spring storms. Those extreme storms may become more frequent with global warming.

Nobody’s saying we’re back where we started a half-century ago. But we’re  moving in the wrong direction and, as Toledo’s crisis shows, much is at stake if we don’t find a way to make the industry of agriculture do what other industries, municipalities and their residents have long since had to do.