Algaeā€™s slimy bottom line


The algae blooms that foul western Lake Erie have immediate economic consequences as well as long-term environmental ones. Toledo taxpayers were reminded of that reality last week, when City Council approved Mayor Mike Bell’s plea to spend another $1 million to counteract a toxin that migrated from the lake into the city’s water supply.

You might think that such a pocketbook matter, or the fact that Lake Erie provides drinking water to nearly 3 million people, would elevate the sense of public and official urgency about scrubbing the fragile lake of its algae scum. Not so you’d notice.

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In Toledo, the new spending represents a 33-percent increase in the budget for chemicals to treat the water consumed by city and metropolitan-area residents. Although Lake Erie’s blue-green coat of algae is likely to recede for the season in a few weeks, city water officials warn that the lake-generated toxins they are battling can stick around much longer.

This year’s algae bloom in Lake Erie was not as bad as the record sliming of 2011, which affected a fifth of the lake’s surface from the mouth of the Maumee River to Cleveland. But the size of the bloom does not always determine the concentration of toxins beneath the surface near water intakes, scientists say. Wind and waves also can affect where toxins end up.

Another northwest Ohio community, Carroll Township in Ottawa County, temporarily shut down its water treatment system last month to deal with a similar toxin threat. Toledo’s much larger system doesn’t have that option.

City officials say they will seek federal and state aid to help them address the additional water-treatment costs. But the response needs to be broader than that.

Toxic algae blooms have been an unwelcome annual plague on Lake Erie — and especially its warm and shallow western basin — for nearly two decades, after a previous period of improvement. Despite cleanup efforts, sewage, industrial waste, and phosphate-laden runoff from farm fertilizers and lawn and household chemicals continue to flow into the lake, feeding algae growth.

The effects are obvious. The pollution impairs Lake Erie’s vital commercial and sport fishing industries, especially in the western basin. It lowers property values for lakefront homeowners, and discourages boating and beach tourism.

Swimmers who are unwise enough to ignore algae advisories risk skin irritation and liver disease. Some researchers say invasive zebra mussels raise phosphorus — and thus algae — levels in the lake. The oxygen-free dead zone at Lake Erie’s bottom continues to grow.

The imperative responses are equally clear. Positive initiatives by farmers in the Maumee watershed to adjust their use of fertilizer in an effort to reduce runoff into the lake need to expand.

Global climate change affects rainfall patterns along the lake — one more reason to address the issue, not to deny it. And whatever budget problems confront Congress, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative must be fully funded.

Otherwise, the new million-dollar bill for Toledo will be just a down payment against inevitable disaster.