Lake Erie Drinking Water Scare Prompts New Concerns Over Harmful Algae

This satellite image shows the formation of algal blooms in Lake Erie during the summer of 2011. This satellite image shows the formation of algal blooms in Lake Erie during the summer of 2011. AP Photo/NOAA

The toxic Lake Erie algal bloom that sent hundreds of thousands of residents in the Toledo, Ohio, area in search of bottled water this weekend is not only a wake-up call in the Glass City but a reminder of the challenges other cities face when relying on the lake for their water consumption needs.

Toledo officials gave the all-clear on Monday with Mayor D. Michael Collins drinking a glass of tap water during a press conference to assure water customers that it was safe to drink. Tests for harmful microcystin prompted water authorities to tell more than 400,000 water consumers not to drink municipal water in the Toledo metropolitan area and in some communities across the Michigan state line.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared a state of emergency in the Toledo area and activated the National Guard to assist with bottled water deliveries. Residents were told that boiling water would only increase the concentration of toxins.

While the water service disruption in Toledo drew national attention because of its size and scope, smaller Ohio jurisdiction have faced previous algal bloom problems and have been monitoring their water intakes for possible toxicity issues.

According to the Sandusky Register:

Sandusky's tests for a toxin called microcystin began on May 6, well before Saturday's announcement that Toledo residents have been warned not to drink their city's water, said Doug Keller, water services superintendent for Sandusky.

Last September, microcystin toxins produced by 2013's unexpectedly large harmful algal bloom knocked out the water treatment system for Carroll Township in Ottawa County. Residents were warned not to drink the water. The township temporarily switched to getting water from the Ottawa County regional water system.

Water officials in Monroe County, Michigan, just north of Toledo, have previously detected microcystin in water intakes, but the director of the city of Monroe’s water and wastewater utilities told the Monroe Evening News that Monroe’s filtration plant has been able to eliminate the toxins before water is delivered to customers.

The western end of Lake Erie is shallow and warmer, creating for ideal conditions for the formation of algal blooms, particularly near Toledo, where the Maumee River, which drains a large portion of agriculturally rich northwestern Ohio and northeastern Indiana, empties into the lake.

Although the eastern end of Lake Erie is deeper and less hospitable for the formation of toxic algal blooms, one scientist with the International Joint Commission, a group that advises U.S. and Canadian officials on Great Lakes issues, said it’s possible for places like Buffalo, N.Y., to be impacted. And that’s caused officials there and elsewhere to take notice.

According to The Buffalo News:

“[New York Sen.] Schumer, D-N.Y., reiterated his earlier call for federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would require every lakeshore community to monitor for toxins that could come from blue-green algae.

“This is not just a state problem, it’s a national problem,” Schumer said.

Schumer said the EPA is already working on developing regulations for testing for toxins.

“Toledo should be a wakeup call,” Schumer said. “And they should hurry up and get out the regulations as to how to do it and the requirement that every town do it.”

Municipal water intakes on the Ontario side of Lake Erie were not impacted, according to CTV News, which noted that water systems there are regularly test for microcystin.

The toxic threat from algal blooms may not subside until September.

Toledo’s water scare has brought renewed scrutiny to the problem of agricultural runoff into Lake Erie, which has fed the formation of the harmful algae. As Toledo’s Blade newspaper reported, proposed state legislation would impose new certification requirements on some farms. Some lawmakers want stronger rules that would include animal manure.

Toledo’s water infrastructure is also being examined to see whether it had somehow let the toxins to pass through filtering safeguards.

There are no federal or state drinking water standards for toxins generated by algal blooms, according to the Texas Tribune, which reported that some Texas cities have grappled with how to deal with threat.

“When it comes to the lake, we remain vigilant, and as we do our after-action review of the events in Toledo, we’ll be looking for any new ways and ideas to continue to improve policies that impact the lake,” Rob Nichols, a Kasich spokesman, told the Blade.

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