Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Lake event alters political landscape

City’s plight proves unthinkable can happen

One thing I keep hearing from sources while covering Toledo’s algae-induced water crisis is this: It’s a game changer.

It has instantly made the environment a key issue of the 2014 gubernatorial race between Republican incumbent John Kasich and his Democratic challenger, Ed FitzGerald.

It will, no doubt, amplify the debate over whether the future of Lake Erie should be reconsidered by a conservative majority in the Ohio General Assembly, which to date has been bending over backward to keep strict regulations from being imposed on the agricultural industry.

Such regulations may be difficult to enforce, but more people affected by algae are calling for more effective ways to control farm runoff now, as opposed to relying on another set of voluntary incentives.

RIPPLE EFFECT BLOG: Environmental coverage of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes from Tom Henry

The Toledo water crisis raises new questions about the impact of manure from concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs.

It also raises new questions about why Congress has slashed funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund. That’s the fund used to finance many of the low-interest federal loans municipalities need to finance sewer projects that will reduce sewerage spills that occur after almost every thunderstorm.

Toledo’s making headway with its $521 million expansion project, intended to prevent sewage spills except for one or two significant storms a year when it’s finished in 2020.

But really. It’s 2014, and there are billions of gallons of raw human waste being flushed down toilets across the Great Lakes region that never make it to a sewage treatment plant.

This water crisis has been an eye-opener for many about the hidden costs of pollution, from additional costs for the National Guard to city employees.

You think it’s just a bunch of fishing boat captains now worried about being thrown out of work when there’s a major algae bloom? Or executives at Cedar Point or owners of lakefront cottages worried about unsightly water?

Wait and see how the restaurant association reacts to being shut down during one of its busiest weeks of the summer. Or, as Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes said, how people trying to scrape together a living working at them — dishwashers and busboys, for example — react.

Last fall’s temporary closure of Ottawa County’s Carroll Township water treatment plant was one thing. It serves 2,000 residents, most of them financially stable. Now the crisis shifts to Toledo, which only a few years ago was ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau as America’s eighth most-impoverished city with one of every four residents in the city limits living below the poverty line.

Conventional wisdom was that the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant — despite being built in 1941 and only recently getting some of its problems addressed, such as a new roof — was too large and sophisticated for algae to pass through it.

No longer will eyes roll when someone suggests a metro area of 500,000 people in the world’s most water-blessed region could suddenly find themselves scrambling for fresh drinking water because of pollution.

The unthinkable has happened.

Not to get overly dramatic, but there are parallels to be made to Toledo’s water crisis and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The latter two, obviously, are much more dramatic. Lives were lost or, at a minimum, upended far worse than they will be from the Toledo area’s temporary disruption of safe drinking water.

But this event’s a game changer for the often-overlooked Great Lakes region on a smaller scale. It not only proved the unthinkable can happen, but it also serves as a stiff wake-up call about the hidden costs of pollution and how our lives are fundamentally connected to water.

“Maybe rattling the cage is a good thing,” Bill Strable, superintendent of pumping stations at Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, told me. “You don’t realize how much we rely on water until you don’t have it.”

The thing is, the threat from toxic microcystis algae and its chief toxin, microcystin, is hardly new. It has appeared almost annually every summer since 1995, following a 20-year disappearance.

I still remember getting out on a boat and seeing it in the summer of 1995 with former Ohio State University limnologist (a fancy word for lake scientist) David Culver. Coverage of each subsequent bloom has been almost like an annual rite of summer for me, with dire warnings put out for people who largely ignored them or made fun of them.

In the early days, before people took the algae more seriously, my stories got picked up by radio shock jocks who poked fun at the thought of a killer algae with glee. They did so even though the stuff was deadly enough that it killed 75 people in a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1995, when an on-site water treatment system there failed and raw water contaminated with algae killed those patients.

That event triggered a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research project headed by another Ohio algae researcher, Wayne Carmichael of Wright State University. Mr. Culver and Mr. Carmichael testified before Congress years ago about how toxic algae endangers the Great Lakes, which holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

It’s not a problem limited to the Great Lakes, either. In China, Mr. Carmichael researched how algae fouls so much water that access to drinking water has become a potentially volatile national security issue. The problem is exacerbated by global climate change. Many people either never knew that or forgot about regional, national, and global algae problems.

I have to confess, I’m starting to appreciate more what one of my buddies from the Society of Environmental Journalists ( went through after Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. In his groundbreaking 2003 series, “Washing Away,” Mark Schleifstein, a two-time Pulitzer winner and best-selling author, predicted in eerie detail what could happen to New Orleans if the levees failed.

To Mark, one of the nation’s best environmental writers, the story was not just about climate change but more so about accountability and the failure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build levees as robust as New Orleans needed. He has described the internal debate over his series at various conferences and speaking engagements, saying how one senior editor tried to stop it because he viewed it as “just more of Schleifstein’s disaster porn.”

Certainly, we’re all about to learn some lessons from what happened in Toledo.

It’s a game changer.

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