The danger of contamination of Toledo’s water supply by toxic algae in Lake Erie appears over for the year. That’s a relief. But the threat will return next year, and the time to prepare for that inevitability — and to take broader measures to clean up the lake — is now.
The best preventive measure would be a formal declaration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the western Lake Erie watershed is “impaired.” Under the federal Clean Water Act, that definition would permit tougher regulation of the sources of pollution — especially runoff of excess manure and fertilizer from farm operations — that promote the growth of harmful algae blooms in the lake.
A toxin produced by such a bloom near Toledo’s water intake in summer 2014 poisoned the city’s water for three days, forcing municipal officials to issue a do-not-drink advisory that affected nearly 500,000 consumers. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie also have forced beaches to close and hampered commercial and sport fishing, recreation, and tourism in the lake’s western basin over the past decade.
Despite these dire precedents, the EPA has not listed the western basin’s open waters as impaired. Nor has Gov. John Kasich’s administration, including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, proposed such a designation — a default of leadership in Columbus as well as Washington.
After last year’s emergency in Toledo, state government enacted several useful anti-pollution measures aimed at preventing a recurrence. Lawmakers are talking about placing a bond issue on next year’s ballot that would raise money for clean-water projects. But these efforts depend too much on voluntary compliance by polluters and the political will of elected officials, which too often have proved inadequate to address the problem.
Last week, a coalition of conservation organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Ohio Environmental Council, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and several Lake Erie advocacy groups, petitioned the EPA to issue a declaration of impairment. That step, they noted, would require an initial assessment of the sources and amounts of pollution entering the lake — not only agricultural runoff, but also overflows from urban sewage systems and inadequate septic systems.
That assessment would become the basis for an action plan to reduce pollution and restore the quality of lake water, which affected states would be legally required to enforce. It would make federal aid available.
Such a plan, similar to one that cleaned up Lake Erie in the 1970s, would include public accountability and consideration of the most cost-effective options. A formal impairment designation for Chesapeake Bay has helped reduce toxic algae in that body of water.
The call for the “impaired” designation is neither radical nor new. The International Joint Commission, which advises the United States and Canada on Great Lakes policy, had proposed it before Toledo’s crisis.
Although the quality of Toledo’s water has been a major issue in this year’s city mayoral campaign, only candidate Mike Ferner has forcefully called on the EPA to declare western Lake Erie impaired. The rest of the field should join him before Election Day.
Governor Kasich, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and their counterpart in the Canadian province of Ontario have resolved to cut the amount of phosphorus, which feeds toxic algae, flowing into Lake Erie by 40 percent within a decade. The federal impairment designation is crucial, and urgent, if these officials are to gain the enforcement tools they need to realize that goal.
In a letter to the EPA’s water division director, the environmental groups said the agency “has failed in its duty to protect Lake Erie and the people and wildlife that depend upon it.” They added: “Waiting yet even longer for the designation ... is unacceptable.”
Right on both counts. It’s time for action.