Late in the evening of Friday August 1, 2014, routine testing of the municipal water supply in nearby Toledo, Ohio, revealed unsafe levels of a toxin produced by a type of algae. This immediately prompted a warning to residents not to drink, cook with, or even touch the water. The toxin in question can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abnormal liver function, as well as skin irritation and rashes in people as well as their pets. Boiling it not only fails to neutralize the toxin, it actually increases its concentration. So now half a million people can’t use their regular water, countless businesses have been forced to temporarily close, and everyone has been forced to rely upon emergency water supplied by the National Guard and other sources. The economic damage is likely to be significant.
Toledo and surrounding communities draw their water from Lake Erie where it is treated and distributed for human consumption. Algal blooms occur every summer here when a number of factors contribute to extreme rates of growth. Calm water and excess sunshine help these aquatic plant-like organisms thrive, but what really kicks them into overdrive is the overabundance of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural and residential runoff. Livestock waste from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) as well as excess fertilizer from farms and lawns drains into local streams and rivers, and eventually ends up in Lake Erie. Here the nutrient-rich water fuels the growth of algae and in most years it just turns the water a sick shade of pea-green:
Sometimes the algal bloom is so serious it can be seen from satellites in space. For the most part the algae species that make up this disgusting phenomenon are relatively harmless. This year, however, the usual mix of algae have been joined by this toxin-producing species that can’t easily be removed with standard water treatment.
Farmers, CAFO owners and managers, and people who overfertilize their lawns have long been warned that irresponsible practices would have detrimental effects not only on the environment, but also on the economy and human quality of life. The water crisis in the Toledo area is a great example of these effects. Will the people responsible for the pollution finally wake up to the consequences of their behavior and take corrective action? Will the populace be sufficiently alarmed by the problem to demand regulation and enforcement? Only time will tell.