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Published: Monday, 8/4/2014 - Updated: 9 months ago


Not a 1-day problem, but life itself


There are two possible narratives to the water crisis in Toledo. Both matter and both need our continued, disciplined attention. One has to do with being able to live daily life. But the other has to do with life itself — the sustainability of human life and social life on this planet.

The first narrative is about being able to do dishes tonight and take a shower tomorrow and take your spouse to dinner. It is about the black box analysis we must eventually do — what went wrong, and right, at the water plant and when things changed. It is about the temporary, technical fix we all want done — yesterday. It has to do with getting the right chemical balance in treating contaminated water so we can all get back to our daily lives.

All that matters. Tremendously. Since most of us live our life on a daily basis, daily life matters. But as important as all that is, it is small ball next to a compromised water supply and a desecrated Lake Erie.

Late Saturday night I talked with Rep. Marcy Kaptur and she more or less said: Keep your eye on the big ball.

The big ball is the water supply. It is the science available as to how the lake became compromised. It is the tiny matter of change — changing public policy and, more importantly, all of our habits, so that we save our own water supply. The big ball is Earth.

The story here is not water bottles, or even the kindness of strangers at water distribution centers, heartwarming as those many kindnesses might be. The story is our water supply. We’ve all just been schooled on how important that is.

The story is the health of Lake Erie.

It’s complicated and there are no bad guys. It’s a complex scientific, intellectual, and socio-economic cocktail. You have global warming, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, sewage from Detroit, sewage from farm animals. If we want good water — the thing upon which our local economy, not to mention our very lives, depends — we must return the lake to itself; restore its integrity and viability.

It’s not going to be easy or simple. There will be much battling and grinding of teeth. But that is what we must do. We can’t just say, “They fixed it, thank God,” and go back to our private work and play. There is no one-day, technical fix for a compromised water supply.

I spent Sunday with Frank Szollosi of the National Wildlife Federation, his national chairman, Bruce Wallace, and his national president, Collin O’Mara. We began the day at the emergency aid staging area at 4080 Technology Drive in Maumee. There many score of city employees and volunteers were stockpiling water. The NWF guys came with a truckload of water they had purchased in Ann Arbor, which we unloaded. When we returned at the end of the day, there looked to be twice as many trucks and volunteers.

Later in the day we visited the crisis command center in Toledo. Outside I met Sen. Randy Gardner who has made the health of the lake his special concern in the legislature. Mr. Gardner is a button-down Republican, but his message was the same as Miss Kaptur’s: Beyond the immediate need and problem is the great issue: we have been poisoning our own water supply.

In between other stops, our small band visited briefly with Capt. Don McGee in Oregon. He charters fishing boats. And he told us, “I hate what they are doing to my lake.” What are they doing? “Feeding the algae.” We‘‍re also killing the fish. Our water brings Ohio $17 billion a year and we are killing tourism too. “For fishing, you need good water. Simple as that,” Mr. McGee said.

But the best thing we did was that we went out on a boat — probably 20 to 25 media, political, and interested people — and we looked at the algae blooms. I wondered whether I would be able to see it. As we motored out I asked one cameraman, “Can you see it?” “I don’t think so,” he said.

And then we saw it. I wish words could describe it, and I am just glad so many photographers and videographers were there to capture it for you. It looked like a combination of an oil slick and evil green slime released by some alien force. And it was thickest at the point of Toledo’s intake — where we take in water for the city, which is the gist of the problem, of course.

The sight was sobering and sickening. I understand the stuff eventually hardens. A boat cannot get through it. You can walk on it.

Will our resolve harden as well?

Remember the oil slicks on the ocean?

Did we stay on that one?

Will we stick with this one?

This is not a one-day problem. This is life itself.

An alien force. Driving past the water plant later, Mr. Szollosi recalled how Homeland Security buttoned it down after 9/​11 — double barbed wire, armed guards, rocks in front of the entrance to deter truck bombers. Definitive steps to prevent terrorists from sabotaging the water supply. But we had another enemy. Us.

Time, past time, for definitive steps.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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