What do we know about the water crisis and when will we know more?


Remember Sen. Howard Baker’s question during Watergate? What did he know and when did he know it?

After a whole day, Toledoans don’t know much about our compromised water supply. To say that most of us will go to bed Saturday night with more questions than answers about the shutdown is a grand and grotesque understatement.

Some 500,000 people without drinking water. I don’t know of any other metropolitan area of our size in the state that has experienced this. Ever. It happened in Ottawa County’s Carroll Township one year ago. And now it has happened here. Our faith in our water supply has been compromised.

That faith will not be repaired in a day.

When the immediate crisis is over, we need to do two things. First, we need a panel of scientists and civil servants convened, perhaps by the governor, perhaps by FEMA, perhaps by both, who will look at this event and ask all the hard questions that need to be asked. And then come up with answers in a written report. Second, we need to look at this crisis in the broader context of environmental policy and practices and our own collective will.

I spoke Saturday with Frank Szollosi, who is the point man for the Great Lakes with the National Wildlife Federation but is from and still lives in Toledo. He told me that there has been a 37 percent increase in rainfall in this region since 1958 and “farming practices and waste water infrastructure have not kept up.” Fertilizer runoff and factory farms, he said, are not problems of Toledo’s making. His conclusion: “We are enduring the result of system failure.” He said the system has not changed as the climate has. And that, until agribusiness must comply with the same rules the rest of us must comply with, our water will be compromised. We need our farmers in order to eat. But we need a system that protects the water supply. He told me, “This happened last night, but it didn’t happen overnight.”

So, we need to change the social and political rules.

That’s macro. We also need micro: We need transparent oversight of Toledo’s water policy and administration. The public is in the dark about our most precious resource.

How can we do better? That’s where the investigative panel comes in.

Some questions:

1) Was there human error at the plant?

Some people on the inside have told me there had to be. Others, in a position to know, have said everything was done by the book.

Which was it? We need a trustworthy answer.

2) Since Oregon has the same water supply, why does it not have the same problem?

I have heard two answers here as well. One is that Oregon has more safety procedures. Another is that it has many fewer and therefore probably has the same problem Toledo has, or worse.

3) There should be a log at the water plant. I am told that, at one time at least, the rule was that an entry was made every two hours. This is the equivalent of a black box. It must be found and analyzed.

4) Was there sufficient staffing at the water plant at the time of the negative readings?

5) I am also told that at least two expensive chemicals must be added to the water to combat algae blooms — potassium and carbon. Was there a sufficient supply of the necessary chemicals and were they added in the right amounts at the right time?

6) Can’t we put a better system in place for notifying the public of a crisis of this proportion than posting it on Facebook in the dead of night? I have to believe that, in this age of technology, we can.

7) Has anything like this happened, or almost happened before, even on a small scale in Toledo? Did we have warnings? I am told we did.

We have sufficient expertise in place to learn and correct. Mayor Mike Collins’ chief of staff, Robert Reinbolt, worked in this field for years. FEMA is standing by. We also have a congressional delegation with sufficient clout in Washington to get us the federal help we may need to clean up our mess and fast-track water plant improvements. But do we, the citizens, or most of our politicians, have the gumption to make the big changes in law and living habits that will safeguard our water? Will we eliminate the pollutants that are overwhelming the water supply?

Former Mayor Mike Bell brought the issue of the water plant and its capacity to the fore more than a year ago. In a meeting with The Blade’s editorial board, he prophesized that without a major investment in the city’s water system Toledo would someday face a water crisis. If we need federal expertise, or dollars, fine. I believe that can be done. We also need expert, dispassionate, and fearless analysis of exactly what happened here. But then there is that macro challenge. The climate is changing and we are not. That’s the larger, long-range change we must face.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.