A cup of Lake Erie water is opaque with algae near Toledo’s water intake crib on Aug. 3.
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
Samuel Taylor Coleridge published these words in 1798, in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But he could have been writing about Toledo 216 years later.
That a city along one of our Great Lakes could suffer from a lack of drinkable water is a low point for clean water in this country, and should be inconceivable. Yet last weekend in Toledo and surrounding communities, half a million Ohio residents living along Lake Erie could not drink or otherwise use city water drawn from the lake.
The source of concern is toxic algae that release microcystin, a toxin that can affect the liver and kidneys. Microcystin enters the body through the consumption of contaminated water or direct contact with skin.
Once it is in the water supply, it cannot be removed or otherwise cleaned out. No amount of chlorine or other water-plant treatment can render it safe for human consumption. People along Lake Erie should not be exposed to such danger.
It borders on the criminal that such a situation should exist, when we know both the cause of this problem and its solution. The cause is excessive use and poor application of phosphorus fertilizers by large farms in the Lake Erie watershed. The solution is application of lower but useful amounts of phosphorus fertilizer at appropriate times during the year.
The availability of drinkable and uncontaminated water, public health, and the economic health of Lake Erie-based businesses cannot be held hostage by large agri-businesses that do not use best practices in the application of fertilizer. Instead, they use poor and outdated practices that allow excessive runoff of fertilizer into Lake Erie. The result — large blooms of toxic algae — is predictable.
It may be easy to point our fingers at farmers and poor practices, but it is the responsibility of Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly to ensure we all have clean and uncontaminated water. In December, 2010, Mr. Kasich — then the governor-elect — told the Ohio Farm Bureau: “We have clogged up the state of Ohio with too much regulation.”
Tell that to the Toledo-area citizens who didn’t have drinking water because of pollution from runoff. When elected officials trash and undermine “regulation” — meaning fundamental laws such as the Clean Water Act — there are real human and economic costs.
Ohio can do better. Its residents deserve better — they deserve uncontaminated water. After years of algae blooms on Lake Erie, it is long past time for our state lawmakers to take action to ensure a clean and healthy Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to millions of Ohioans.
Our lawmakers know the problem and they know the solution; this doesn’t need to be studied ad nauseam. But all they’ve done is provide lip service and Band-Aids. They need backbone to act on behalf of all Ohio residents.
The situation in Toledo is a damn embarrassment to Ohio. Contact Governor Kasich and your state senator and representative. Encourage them to show some backbone — and legislate a real solution.
Bob Shields is chairman of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club.