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Originally published August 3, 2014 at 8:10 PM | Page modified August 4, 2014 at 1:36 PM

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Green water: Lake Erie’s toxic-algae woes were decade in the making

The problems on Lake Erie, brought on by farm runoff and sludge from sewage-treatment plants, have been building for more than a decade. Now, for the second day in a row, Toledo, Ohio, residents have been told not to use tap water.


The Associated Press

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TOLEDO, Ohio —

The toxins that contaminated the drinking-water supply of 400,000 people in northwest Ohio didn’t just suddenly appear.

Water-plant operators along western Lake Erie have long been worried about this very scenario as a growing number of algae blooms have turned the water into a pea-soup color in recent summers, leaving behind toxins that can sicken people and kill pets.

In fact, the problems on the shallowest of the five Great Lakes brought on by farm runoff and sludge from sewage-treatment plants have been building for more than a decade.

While residents around Ohio’s fourth-largest city were being told to avoid drinking tap water for a second day, discussion began to center on how to stop the pollutants fouling the lake that supplies drinking water for 11 million people.

“People are finally waking up to the fact that this is not acceptable,” Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins said.

City and state officials monitoring the water were waiting for a new set of samples to be analyzed Sunday before determining whether the water was safe.

“This is not over yet,” said Collins, who said some samples have showed decreased levels of toxins in the water.

Toledo officials warned residents not to use city water early Saturday after tests at one treatment plant showed readings for microcystin above the standard for consumption, most likely because of the algae.

Drinking the water could cause vomiting, cramps and rashes. Health officials advised children and those with weak immune systems to avoid showering or bathing in the water.

Worried residents told not to drink, brush their teeth or wash dishes with the water descended on truckloads of bottled water delivered from across the state as the governor declared a state of emergency. The Ohio National Guard was using water-purification systems to produce drinkable water.

Oliver Arnold, of Toledo, loaded up on bottled water Sunday so that he could give baths to his six children, including 4-month-old twins. “We’re going through a lot. I know by tomorrow, we’re going to be looking for water again,” he said.

Some hospitals canceled elective surgeries and were sending surgical equipment that needed to be sterilized to facilities outside the water emergency, said Bryan Biggie, disaster coordinator for ProMedica hospitals in Toledo.

In southeastern Michigan, authorities were operating water stations Sunday for the 30,000 customers affected by the toxic contamination.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a satellite image showing a small but concentrated algae bloom centered right where Toledo draws its water supply, said Jeff Reutter, head of the Ohio Sea Grant research lab.

The bloom was much smaller than in past years and isn’t expected to peak until early September. But instead of being pushed out to the middle of the lake, winds and waves drove the algae toward the shore, he said.

“Weather conditions made it such that bloom was going right into the water intakes,” said Reutter, who has been studying the lake since the 1970s, when it was severely polluted.

The amount of phosphorus going into the lake has risen every year since the mid-1990s. “We’re right back to where we were in the ’70s,” Reutter said.

Almost a year ago, one township just east of Toledo told its 2,000 residents not to drink or use the water coming from their taps. That was believed to be the first time a city has banned residents from using the water because of toxins from algae in the lake.

Researchers largely blame the algae’s resurgence on manure and chemical fertilizer from farms that wash into the lake along with sewage-treatment plants. Leaky septic tanks and stormwater drains have contributed, too. Combined, they flush huge amounts of phosphorus into the lake.

Environmental groups and water researchers have been calling on Ohio and other states in the Great Lakes region to drastically reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into the lake. Ohio lawmakers this past spring took a step toward tackling the algae problem when they enacted a law requiring most farmers to undergo training before they use commercial fertilizers on their fields. But they have stopped short of mandating restrictions on farmers.

The International Joint Commission, an advisory agency made up of Canadian and U.S. officials, said last year that urgent steps are needed to reduce phosphorus applied to fields and suggested among other things that states ban the spread of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground.

That report came after a state task force in Ohio called for a 40 percent reduction in all forms of phosphorus going into the lake.

Agriculture industry groups have been asking farmers for more than a year to reduce phosphorus runoff before government regulators step in and impose their own restrictions. They’re also putting $1 million toward research to determine how to keep phosphorus on the fields and working with conservation groups on the issue, Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said Sunday. Farmers know they must be a part of the solution, he said.

“We’re clearly showing progress,” Reutter said. “You have to decide for yourself whether you think it’s fast enough.”

In Michigan, Detroit’s 4 million-user water system gets its water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. In the face of the Toledo water crisis, Detroit officials plan to review their contamination procedures Monday, water-department Deputy Director Darryl Latimer told The Detroit News. He said it was unlikely Detroit would face a problem like Toledo’s.

“The system is tested every two weeks for blue-green algae,” Latimer said. “We haven’t seen the precursors for this type of toxin.”

At a news conference on Sunday afternoon Collins and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said they did not know when the tap-water ban would be lifted. They were waiting for an analysis of water samples by the federal Environmental Protection Agency before deciding whether the water was safe.

“I want to make sure that I would be comfortable with my family — my daughters and my wife — drinking the water,” Kasich said. “When I’m comfortable with that, then I think we’re in a position where we can say to the people here in Toledo that we feel good about it, and we can move forward.”

And as local television stations showed images of green-tinted water along Lake Erie, residents searched for rich descriptions: the color of pea soup, or the tone of the Incredible Hulk.

“It’s murky and green — nothing I would swim in,” said Katie Peters, 35. “It’s sort of like the wicked witch from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ lime green.”

Peters, a teacher, drove for an hour to a Wal-Mart in Michigan to stock up on bottled water because she wanted to make sure that the local supply was available for residents who could not afford to travel.



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