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Toledo faces a quandary in the aftermath of its historic water crisis: Does it focus on reducing the threat of toxic microcystis algae, which temporarily made the tap water for 500,000 Metro Toledo residents unsafe to drink?
Or, does it turn up the heat on state and federal lawmakers whom city leaders accuse of taking too much of a business-as-usual approach and delaying overdue improvements to water-treatment plants in Toledo and across the country?
Toledo officials are wrestling with those decisions now, knowing that whatever they decide will likely cost one of America’s most cash-strapped cities — one ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau just a few years ago as the nation’s eighth most impoverished — millions of dollars it doesn’t have.
“They’re inextricably linked issues,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler told The Blade following a news conference at a Perrysburg Township farm on Thursday. “They go part-in-parcel, hand in hand.”
Throughout the drinking water crisis the first weekend of August, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins sounded more like an environmentalist than the mayor of a Rust Belt city trying to attract industry.
He fumed at the TV cameras about society’s lack of environmental stewardship.
The mayor said he was disgusted by how people allowed one of Earth’s greatest natural resources to deteriorate before their eyes, and how now, after decades of indifference, it was time to stand up and demand change. He said it was time to take on the powerful agricultural lobby, and he didn’t mind if he was politically incorrect or was offending key Democrats or Republicans.
No mention was made of the silent deterioration of the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant. No mention was made of the extensive backlog of delayed repairs at the plant, which he later admitted was condoned by countless mayors and city councilmen.
The mayor’s tone was markedly different when he and his chief of staff, Bob Reinbolt, met several members of The Blade’s news and editorial staffs inside the newspaper’s editorial board office last Tuesday, in response to articles that showed an extensive paper trail of city water-plant problems cited by the Ohio EPA.
The issues were so steep that Mr. Butler, in a June 9 letter to Mr. Collins, warned the mayor that water system was in imminent danger of failure.
“This plant is an atrocity,” Mr. Collins confessed to Blade journalists as the meeting inside the newspaper office began. “Nobody had a plan.”
So how can that be reversed?
Climate change unknown
Toledo officials have said over the last two weeks that the city is at a turning point, not only in the technology at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, but also in their diplomatic efforts to get the lake’s algae under control.
Complicating their decisions are the great unknowns about climate change.
While the western Lake Erie region is already seeing more intense and more frequent thunderstorms, climate scientists have differing views on what future Great Lake water levels will be.
“Due to global climate change, toxin-producing cyanobacteria are spreading into more temperate regions and becoming a more widespread problem,” according to a paper written by the Water Research Foundation, a Denver-based think tank for water science.
For officials in Toledo’s public utilities department, climate change is a wild card.
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Many infrastructure projects across the country were built decades ago when climate change wasn’t an issue. But now that it is, climate change will make it even more difficult for Toledo to redesign and retrofit its current plant or build a new one.
City engineers figure a new structure — even an overhauled one — needs to last the city for the next 50 to 75 years. The work is incredibly expensive.
The city’s current planned improvements will cost $300 million.
When Toledo city councilmen asked Ed Moore, the city’s public utilities director, for a ballpark estimate on a new plant on Aug. 4, he responded with this sentence: “North of $1 billion.”
“We encourage systems to kind of bookend the projections out there in planning for the kind of system they can,” Mike Baker, chief of the Ohio EPA’s drinking and ground waters division, said. “Now and in the future, people should be planning for climate extremes.”
Toledo’s process common
Toledo uses a combination of settling and absorption, as do most major water treatment plants.
Even newer ones in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, which have facilities four to six times larger, use the same fundamental concepts, according to Alan Roberson, the American Water Works Association’s director of federal relations in Washington.
“In an ideal world, you would want to keep this stuff [algae] out of your source water. In Lake Erie, that’s not practical,” Mr. Roberson said.
Andrew McClure, Collins Park Water Treatment plant superintendent, told The Blade the city’s water treatment begins 6 to 12 hours before water reaches the plant, when potassium permanganate is added to raw water as it’s drawn in through the system intake crib nearly three miles out in Lake Erie, off the shoreline in Jerusalem Township east of Oregon.
That chemical helps combat algae to some extent. But it is mostly for taste and odor, as well as for keeping quagga mussels — the exotic successor to zebra mussels — from clogging the intake.
Powdered activated carbon is then added when the water arrives at the low-service pump station a half-mile south of the shoreline, Mr. McClure said.
Operators add alum once the water arrives at the treatment plant in East Toledo.
The alum forces algae particles to bind together, making them easier to separate from the water, Mr. McClure said.
That separation process begins in the flocculation basin, where the water is gently stirred. The stirring has to be gentle so the algal clumps don’t break apart and become dispersed back into the water column, he explained.
Lime is added to soften the water. Soda ash is used to counteract alum when there’s excessive algae and a need for more alum, Mr. McClure said.
As the water completes three passes in the flocculation basin, with particles settling out, carbon dioxide is added to complete the softening process.
Then the water passes through a series of filters. It is dosed with other chemicals on its way out. Chlorine is added throughout the treatment process to kill bacteria and any residual algae toxins. Sodium chloride and fluoride are added near the end, the latter to help prevent tooth decay. Polyphosphate is added to help protect copper pipes.
The finished water is distributed to the public from the enormous force of high-service pumps that are wider and taller than many two-car garages.
The controversy about the water plant’s status isn’t about the fundamental method Toledo uses to treat water, but the condition of its parts and the overall aging of the 73-year-old facility, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated in 1941 — a product of the New Deal era’s Public Works Administration.
Toledo drew water from the Maumee River near Danny Thomas Park in the early 1900s, then from Brookford Park near the Our Lady of Perpetual Help campus in South Toledo, before the East Toledo plant was built.
It relocated its intake to its present site in western Lake Erie to have a more steady, reliable source of water, he said.
Now, Mr. Moore is having city engineers rethink the whole setup because of what happened the first weekend of August — a deprivation of safe tap water in one of the world’s most water-blessed areas. The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.
Officials said they may even consider drilling groundwater wells as a backup.
Cost always a huge factor
Reverse osmosis is one technology a city the size of Toledo won’t likely pursue, Mr. Roberson said.
It is expensive — it has high energy costs — but is highly effective at removing impurities because it removes what doesn’t belong in the water at the cellular level.
But no major plant has found reverse osmosis to be practical.
It is becoming more commonly used for more on-site purification at hospitals and facilities such as kidney dialysis centers, which need water to be purified more than what comes out of the tap.
But the largest plant with reverse osmosis is a desalination plant in Tampa, which usually produces far less than its rated capacity of 25 million gallons of water a day — a fifth of Toledo’s.
The $158 million project underwent six years of delays after opening in 2003 before it went online in 2009. It provides only a supplemental source of drinking water for the Tampa metro area.
Toledo needs a plant capable of producing a lot more water. The Collins Park Treatment Plant has a rated capacity of 120 million gallons a day. When there’s an unusually high demand, operators could push it to producing 150 million gallons a day but would rather not, Mr. Moore said.
The normal demand is 60 million to 100 million gallons a day, usually on the low end during winter and on the high end during summer, officials said.
Algae is in the river too
For their look into the future, city engineers are being asked to weigh the pros and cons of relocating the city’s water intake.
It isn’t practical to return to the Maumee River; algae grows there in the spring, anyway, according to David Culver, a retired Ohio State University zoology professor and national algae expert.
The most likely scenario, according to Mr. Moline, would be relocating the intake to the east. Lake Erie’s water depth nearly doubles just past the Lake Erie islands. Putting the intake there would cost untold millions of dollars.
But such a project would allow Toledo to draw from a lake depth that — for now, at least — is less prone to algae concentrating that far down in its water column.
Many forms of algae grow on the lake bottom. But they don’t form mats until their cells become buoyant and rise to the lake surface.
Toledo and Ottawa County’s Carroll Township — which last September became Ohio’s first publicly owned water treatment plant to go offline because of an algal bloom — have found that wind and wave conditions can push blooms below the surface in shallow western Lake Erie enough to engulf underwater intakes.
Before it gives serious consideration to relocating its intake, Toledo will move forward with plans for a new unit capable of producing another 40 million gallons of water daily at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant.
Its 120 million-gallon-a-day capacity comes from three units that each are capable of producing 40 million gallons a day of treated drinking water.
The plan is to take one of those older units offline once the new one is operational in 2019, Mr. Moline said. Then, one by one, each of the older units will be refurbished.
Construction of the new 40 million-gallons-a-day unit is to cost $264 million and is the cornerstone of a $300 million investment the city is making into the Collins Park treatment plant.
Engineering and design of the new unit is to take 18 months, Mr. McClure said.
One major change in the technology at Collins Park will be the addition of what engineers describe as a final stage of treatment — where all water leaving the plant, in the words of Mr. Moline, will be “polished.”
City engineers and consultants are considering a unit in which ozone technology would be the final treatment. It is highly effective as a disinfectant, much like chlorine, the American Water Works Association’s Mr. Roberson said.
The Water Research Foundation, an affiliate of that association, said in its scientific paper that ozone provides “a considerable level of protection from several types of algal toxins such as microcystin, but not saxitoxin.” For that reason, it cautions against tailoring any plant too heavily in the favor of any one toxin.
The other option on the table is granulated activated carbon. The advantage is that the carbon would remain intact, although it’s hard to remove for maintenance, Mr. Roberson said.
“They might at least evaluate ozone,” Mr. Roberson said. “But the fundamental processes they have would be similar to what they have today. The same basic technology has been built upon for 100 years.”
Cynthia Barnett is a Florida writer who has traveled the world researching advanced water technology. In her highly acclaimed book, Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, Ms. Barnett said America needs a national water ethic.
She devoted a chapter to how Singapore, one of the most water-stressed places on Earth, has become one of the most innovative for water conservation and treatment technology, one of its products being drinking water made from highly purified sewage.
Ms. Barnett told The Blade that “the ultimate water treatment is that we treat water differently.”
“With tainted tap water in Toledo and Charleston, W.Va., and groundwater pollution in California and harmful algal blooms here in Florida, water quality has reached a point of crisis that can’t be solved with water-treatment plants alone,” she said.
“The United States needs a new ethic for water — the country must come together to pollute less and use less. Agriculture, sewage plants, lawn fertilizers, runoff from our millions of miles of streets and parking lots — all are part of the problem, and that side of the problem is where we can do the most to solve it.”
COMING MONDAY: An in-depth look at the algae plaguing western Lake Erie.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.