Take a deep breath, Toledo.
The return to normalcy has begun.
The metro area’s 500,000 residents on Monday welcomed the return of tap water that public officials — for the first time in three days — declared with utmost confidence was clean, safe, and so free of the sickening western Lake Erie algae toxin called microcystin that sophisticated laboratory instruments can now barely detect it.
Drink up, an elated and exhausted Mayor D. Michael Collins encouraged the region’s water customers.
But while the transition back to normalcy appeared to be going smooth — with no major water main breaks or other complications reported, to the delight of utility operators and public health officials who feared a setback if all homes and businesses tried flushing out their pipes at once — there also was a sense that things will never be the same.
The day began with Mr. Collins lashing out at state and federal officials for more rhetoric than action over the years.
“Our government has to come to the realization it’s time to stop talking about western Lake Erie and do something about it,” he fumed. “I’d like them to stop acting like feral cats trying to organize a parade.”
■ How is Collins doing? It depends on who you ask
If there is a “silver lining” to this ordeal, several local officials said throughout the day, it will be more than the obvious heightened awareness of contaminated drinking water and the hidden costs of pollution.
It starts with a consensus among state and local officials over how to test for the toxin, and how to make better sense of the laboratory data.
Incredibly, that consensus wasn’t forged until about 4 p.m. Sunday. Also, according to Toledo Councilman Lindsey Webb, that consensus will have ramifications from this point forward for other western Lake Erie shoreline communities in Ohio such as Oregon, Port Clinton, Marblehead, and Sandusky.
The ordeal gave Toledo, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a firsthand look at how a mishmash of testing methods and a lack of certainty over steps to be taken, even when drawing samples, can leave communities in limbo when a water crisis hits.
“Before this started, there was not a [standard] way of testing for this toxin,” Ms. Webb said.
On Saturday, the first day of the ordeal, dozens of officials from public health, environment, emergency response, and other disciplines were frustrated with apples-to-oranges comparisons after realizing tests were done differently at Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, the city of Oregon’s water treatment plant, Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., the Ohio EPA‘s laboratory in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and the U.S. EPA’s laboratory in Cincinnati.
Officials couldn’t agree which test was the best indicator for the toxin’s presence. That’s something area water plant operators have wanted sorted out by the U.S. EPA, but the federal agency claims it has not finished researching the science behind each detection method.
Don Moline, Toledo’s public utilities commissioner, described them as “significant variations.”
So Toledo and state officials took it upon themselves on Sunday to come up with a consensus for moving forward, according to Ms. Webb, who was part of the discussions.
A copy of the new testing protocol, signed by Mr. Collins and Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler, appears on page 41 of a 72-page interim report about the water crisis that was presented to the City Council on Monday afternoon.
Among the many stipulations are two changes that Ms. Webb said are particularly important.
Samples must have chemicals added to neutralize chlorine, so that chlorine is not breaking down any microcystin that might be in each sample before it reaches the lab. Also, each sample will need a process called lysing.
Lysing is a laboratory procedure of getting cocoonlike algae cells to break open and release any tiny, pea-shaped toxins they may have inside. It can be done by simply exposing samples to a hard freeze-and-thaw cycle, or by adding a chemical to stimulate that reaction.
Great Lakes scientists know microcystin, the chief toxin in microcystis algae, is not uniformly spread in algae blooms.
It’s entirely possible to have a large outbreak of microcystis algae and little or no toxin. Or, conversely, more toxin than would be expected in a relatively faint bloom.
Chemists inside Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant have preferred the lysing technique because they believe it gives them a more precise account of how much toxin actually exists in each sample, Jeff Martin, a senior chemist at the plant, has said.
But other labs, such as the main one operated by the Ohio EPA lab, opt not to use lysing. There has been some debate among experts about whether lysing creates a false positive.
Ms. Webb noted that data presented to Toledo city councilmen Monday afternoon showed the opposite of what would be expected if that were true: Several of the unlysed samples actually came back with higher readings for microcystin than those that were lysed.
She said that shows lysing does not create a false positive and that Toledo’s problem was the result of toxins concentrating around its water intake.
“This groundwork will lay the foundation for a national testing standard,” Ms. Webb said.
Oregon, which has a nearby intake, a mile closer to shore, does not use lysing in its samples.
The ordeal will prompt Toledo officials to re-examine the physical capabilities of its Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, the depth of its intake, and other issues, said Ed Moore, a veteran city administrator who took over as director of the city‘s public utilities department in April.
“This was as unprecedented as it gets. This was D-Day for the Department of Public Utilities,” he said. “It was absolutely a ground-breaking weekend. Unfortunately, it took a disaster to get us to that point.”
The plant was built in 1941, a relic of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal-era Public Works Administration.
Although engineers who work there stand behind its design, city councilmen largely ignored requests for improvements until the roof nearly collapsed in one section, resulting in a $300 million upgrade that began two years ago.
As a result, the plant now has more construction workers on site than plant employees, Mr. Moore told reporters during the morning news conference.
During his presentation to the the council that afternoon, Mr. Moore was asked for a ballpark estimate of replacing that water treatment plant in today’s dollars.
“North of $1 billion,” he said.
Staggering as that sounds, though, the city might want to consider setting aside funds in the coming years and plan for an eventual replacement, Mr. Moore said.
“If we’d started doing that 20 years ago, we’d be a lot farther ahead today,” he said.
But none of that, according to Mr. Moore, means anything when weak state and federal environmental laws allow Lake Erie to become so fouled by algae.
“I don’t care if the plant’s 2 years old or 200 years old,” he said. “If the source [of water] is corrupted, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Mr. Collins and others said they expect the hidden costs of last weekend’s water crisis to be astronomical.
George Sarantou, the city’s finance director, said he estimated the ordeal cost the city alone $130,000 in additional operational costs, including $28,000 for police department overtime. Losses among private businesses extended well beyond that.
“The infrastructure of the city is never sexy to talk about until there is a tragedy,” Mr. Sarantou said.
Many people seem to forget western Lake Erie has been fouled by toxic microcystis algae almost annually since 1995. The blooms have generally become more intense since 2003, a possible symptom of climate change.
The one exception was 2012, when this region and others went bone dry from the worst drought in a half-century. That 2012 anomaly, though, came between a record 2011 algae bloom and the 2013 outbreak, considered the second worst in modern times.
To Great Lakes researchers such as Jeff Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory director, the trend is even more difficult to reverse as climate change becomes more acute and population increases result in more shoreline development and a demand for food.
Agricultural runoff is one of the largest contributors of phosphorus. The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force has called for farmers to reduce phosphorus releases from their land by 40 percent through a series of voluntary conservation techniques. Mr. Reutter has said even a 40 percent reduction in nutrient loadings may not be enough, given internal loads and how climate change is accentuating the problem.
Farm groups continue to promote conservative techniques. One of the latest is a voluntary certification program to help Ohio crop farmers document efforts they make to control runoff.
But many people insist more needs to be done and point to the weekend’s water crisis as a prime example of why.