The water emergency in Lucas County is over, at least for now, but a sense of urgency must continue. Toxic algae will not disappear from Lake Erie and other lakes in the state until we change a lot of bad habits.
There is too much at stake for Ohioans not to step up the effort to reduce the pollution of Lake Erie, where millions obtain their water and millions more enjoy it for recreation.
This past weekend, about 400,000 people in the Toledo area were forced to search for safe water after the city’s tap water was deemed unsafe. While the ban was lifted Monday, faith in the water supply has been compromised.
Tourism, meanwhile, will continue to suffer as long as algae blooms threaten.
The solution, unfortunately, can’t be fixed overnight.
Most algae is harmless to humans and beneficial to aquatic life, but the toxic blue-green type is a lurking menace. The size of the annual bloom depends not only on the amount of phosphorus that finds its way into the lake, but sunlight, water temperature and wind direction.
Toledo’s water woes weren’t so shocking after one viewed satellite photos which showed this year’s early bloom concentrated in the western-most part of the lake, where the Toledo water treatment plant’s intake is located.
Based on recent history, perhaps a heightened state of alert should exist. Last year, the municipal water supply in Carroll Township, which is east of Toledo, was infiltrated by algae, and other villages and townships along the lake have learned to keep a watchful eye this time of year.
Interestingly, precautions apparently saved the city of Oregon, whose own intake is located near Toledo’s. It may have avoided water troubles by starting treatment before microcystin, the toxin emitted by algae, even started showing up in tests.
Certainly, daily monitoring, more frequent testing and early treatment must be part of any water treatment facility’s routine.
Most experts say the long-term answer is to stop feeding the algae by limiting the amount of phosphorus in the lake.
Researchers blame algae’s resurgence on manure and chemical fertilizer from farms that wash into the lake, along with sewage from municipal wastewater treatment plants. Leaky septic tanks and storm water drains contribute to phosphorus levels, too.
Some say the goal should be to reduce, by 40 percent, all forms of phosphorus going into the lake.
The efforts have started.
A law passed earlier this year requires most farmers to undergo training before they use commercial fertilizers. But that rule doesn’t kick in until 2017, and another source of runoff, manure that is applied to farm fields, isn’t regulated under the bill.
More recently, the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2013 was signed into law and ensures federal agencies will prioritize monitoring, research and mitigation efforts.
Those developments will help, but much more work is needed.
Much goodwill, however, came out of a bad situation this past weekend.
The response to Toledo’s emergency was impressive, considering the challenge of trying to meet the water needs of nearly a half-million people.
The governor was quick to declare a state of emergency, which allowed the National Guard to help the city establish a water distribution network. Many communities also responded. Findlay offered assistance and Fostorians donated over 200 cases of water. Within hours, water was pouring in from around the state. Most people could only imagine what it may be like to function without it.
More good will only follow when all Ohioans take ownership of the problem, and do their part to solve it.