Algae Causes Toxic Drinking Water, Call to Action

  • Algae bloom on Lake Erie August 5, 2014. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

August 8, 2014
By Julie Grant and Rebecca Williams

Mucky algae on Lake Erie recently turned the water running out of Toledo taps toxic. More than 400,000 residents had to scramble for bottled water. At first, they were told not to use the municipal water for any reason. In the midst of the three-day ordeal, Michigan Radio spoke with residents, like Pat Haines.

“Everything is closed. It just really has knocked the socks off of Toledo. All the McDonald’s, all the restaurants are closed," Haines said. "It has really shut down Toledo.”

For researchers who monitor Lake Erie, the crisis was no surprise. They’ve been documenting the toxic algae blooms, which caused the drinking water problems, for many years. The blooms are created by things like phosphorus that run off from farms, comes from sewage treatment plants and lawn care chemicals.

The algae can steal oxygen from water in the lake, creating dead zones for fish and other wildlife. The algae can also contain toxins that cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even liver damage in animals and people.

Dealing with all of this is expensive. The Toledo Blade reports that in recent years, the city has spent up to $ 4 million a year battling algae toxins. 

Algae is also a problem around the country and the world.  The Army Corps of Engineers alerted lake visitors about a hazardous, blue-green algal bloom in the New York State portion of Kinzua Dam and Allegheny Reservoir last week. A federal environmental study found 30 percent of U.S. lakes have the harmful algae. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said algae blooms cost the country more than $100 million in public health, monitoring and management, and losses in fishing and tourism. In China, huge mats of thousands of tons of algae are a yearly occurrence in one coastal city. While that type is not toxic to humans, the algae blooms there, first reported in 2007, are destructive to marine life.

Immediate Call to Action

The International Joint Commission(IJC) is an independent organization that gives advice to the U.S. and Canada on Great Lakes issues. Earlier this year, the IJC put out a report on how to prevent algal blooms.

Raj Bejankiwar is the lead scientist on that report.

"One of the key things we heard over and over from the scientific community is that this winter application of manure and fertilizer when the ground is frozen is the key for triggering the algae blooms," says Raj Bejankiwar, the lead scientist on that report. "So we are asking states to outright ban that practice because it's not an environmentally friendly option; it's not a good practice.”

Bejankiwar’s group wants Pennsylvania and the other states around Lake Erie to ban the use of fertilizer on frozen farm fields.

Last fall, a state task force in Ohio called for a 40 percent reduction of all forms of phosphorous going into the lake. The IJC report calls for a similar cut. But Bejankiwar admits it’s not going to be easy. He says the winter fertilizer ban is the first step.

"[The] second one is dealing with the increasing events of runoff, heavy storm events and heavy rain events,” he says.

Many cities around the Great Lakes, including Toledo, have what’s called combined sewage overflow systems. When it rains the sewage pipes fill with stormwater and overflow into rivers and lakes.

No easy answers

He says he hopes the situation in Toledo where a half million people were left without drinkable water, will focus attention on an issue scientists have been aware of for a long time.

“We need to take very aggressive action soon and we need all level of participation, from the general public, from the farmers, from the industries, sewage treatment plants, municipalities, states and provinces and government,” Bejankiwar says.

He says some progress has been made, but it’s not fast enough.