Climate change and an unwillingness to regulate have led to a vicious algae bloom that could spread to other Great Lakes and threaten the nation’s major drinking water supply.
Around Toledo, Ohio, concerns about water toxicity continue to plague local residents, despite assurances from local officials that the water is safe to drink. High concentrations of algae growth in Lake Erie have led researchers to believe that the presence of toxins in the water supply for Ohio’s fourth largest city is a problem not likely to go away quickly or remain local to just Toledo.
On Saturday, Toledo’s water authority detected a concentration of the toxin microcystin at levels above safety limits. Microcystin is a liver-damaging peptide that can induce diarrhea, vomiting and contact rashes among humans and can kill dogs or other small animals if ingested. The toxin is produced by anaerobic bacteria, which prosper in the unique conditions of Lake Erie; as Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, the high phosphorous content of the water creates a low oxygen environment that encourages rapid growth of the algae and bacteria.
In Toledo’s case, a bloom of the algae formed directly over the city’s water intake pipe. However, as the algae developed on the surface of the lake and the intake is near the lake’s bottom, a freak occurrence of high winds near the bloom and heavy toxin production are the culprits behind the tainting of Toledo’s water. By Sunday, Toledo had added additional activated carbon and chlorine to the water supply at the intake, which seemed to temporarily mitigate the toxicity.
“The big concern on Lake Erie right now is that bloom that we’ve got is likely to persist,” said Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant at Ohio State University, to NBC News. “It will move from west to east. It is likely to persist well into October and it will probably peak in September, so it hasn’t reached its worst yet.”
The Great Lakes hold 84 percent of the nation’s fresh water and one-fifth of the world’s drinking water supply. With inland lakes from Minnesota to California being polluted with toxic algae, and with an oxygen-free zone the size of New Jersey being discovered in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the issue of industrial phosphorous runoff has grown to be an issue that can no longer be ignored or left to voluntary actions.
“We’ve worked with farmers, and we know it works,” Jordan Lubetkin, a Great Lakes spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, told The New York Times regarding voluntary measures imposed to control oxygen-destroying runoffs. “Voluntary programs will take you so far. But at the end of the day, you need numeric standards. You’ve got to limit the amount of phosphorus coming into the lake. That’s why you see what we’re seeing in Toledo.”
For decades, Lake Erie has been a receptacle for industrial waste, sewage and fertilizer runoff. Despite the establishment of environmental protections in the 1970s toward rescuing Lake Erie — once considered a dead lake — fertilizer runoff from northern Ohio farms are fed to the lake, particularly via the Maumee River Basin. As the basin services thousands of square miles of farmland, many of the water protection measures would not apply to the heaviest polluters.
These “nonpoint” polluters, or polluters not directly connected to a waterway, are not covered by the Clean Water Act or other federal water protection laws. Further, regulation of such polluters is reserved to the states, which have overwhelmingly chosen not to address the issue. Arguing that such restrictions would infringe on farmers’ rights, Republicans at both the national and local levels have vehemently opposed expansion of federal water protection, particularly to wetlands, which are essential for filtering out pollutants prior to them reaching a river or lake.
Since the mid-1990s, the amount of phosphorous entering into the lake has increased with every year. Stormwater drains, leaky septic tanks and drain-offs from sewage treatment plants complicate the issue.
An increase of zebra and quagga mussels in the lake has also promoted the growth of microcystis algae. As the invasive species eat every other type of algae in the lake, this leaves room for the microcystin algae to grow. This has led many to speculate that the recent acceleration of algae blooms are more dangerous than the algae blooms of the 1960s and 70s. The accelerated cycles of storms — which wash more phosphorus into the lake — and prolonged calm, which is an effect of climate change, has also encouraged algae growth.
Beyond threats to the drinking water supply, the algae concentration is a multi-billion dollar problem that affects fishing, recreation and inland waterway transportation. For many residents living near Lake Erie, the algae has became a part of everyday life — for example, algae beach advisories have become commonplace in many areas.
However, as the inland water transportation system has broken down many of the natural barriers protecting one lake’s ecosystem from another, algae migration is becoming a significant concern. While algae exists in every lake, concerns that similar phosphorous concentrations can set up in the other Great Lakes are causing pause in Washington and in state capitals.