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Algae bloom stretches to Canada, but Toledo water safe to drink

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    Algae-tainted Lake Erie water on display as members of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie protest at One Government Center last week. Despite the green hue of lake water, the Toledo area's filtered drinking water is safe to drink because of a lack of toxins near the city's intake.

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    Satellite photo of Lake Erie algae taken Tuesday. The green algae bloom in the lake's western basin stretches all the way to Canada.

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    A paddle cuts through the algae during the ProMedica Frogtown Regatta at Saturday at International Park in Toledo.

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    An algae bloom from Lake Erie has moved into the boat basin Thursday, September 21.

    The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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Satellite photo of Lake Erie algae taken Tuesday. The green algae bloom in the lake's western basin stretches all the way to Canada.

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Based on how fast bottled water is flying off supermarket shelves again, Toledo-area residents have a lot of concerns about what’s happening out in western Lake Erie now.

It’s ugly out there, there’s no doubt about that. NASA’s latest satellite imagery shows this summer’s algae bloom is widening as far north as Canada and just past the Lake Erie islands.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the toxin concentration remains low in most areas. That’s true where it matters most — intake cribs that send raw lake water to several municipal water-treatment plants, including Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant.

RELATED CONTENT: Toledo leaders say algae not expected to have negative economic impact ■ Mayor Hicks-Hudson now wants Lake Erie declared impaired

According to area water-treatment plant operators, the toxin concentration remains surprisingly low — especially now that there is every indication to believe The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accurately predicted this year’s bloom will go down as the third or fourth largest since 2002. 

Scientists have long said the size of a bloom does not correlate to its toxicity.

At Toledo’s intake crib, three miles north of the Lake Erie shoreline, toxin concentrations over the past week have been among the lowest all season, giving credence to the city’s claim that its finished tap water distributed to the public is safe to drink.

Records provided by Janet Schroeder, a city water department spokesman, show the highest concentration in the raw water near Toledo’s intake was a mere 1.24 parts per billion last Friday, easily within the water plant’s ability to treat it. The needle on the city’s water quality dashboard doesn’t even get moved into the Watch category until the raw lake water is over 5 ppb, and several area operators have said it can get as high as 50 ppb before treatment can become problematic.

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A paddle cuts through the algae during the ProMedica Frogtown Regatta at Saturday at International Park in Toledo.

The Blade/Lori King
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The numbers after Friday were this: 0.68 ppb on Saturday; 0.78 ppb on Sunday; 0.31 ppb on Monday; 0.42 on Tuesday, and 0.52 ppb on Wednesday. Those numbers are so low they’re barely detectable.

Andy McClure, Collins Park Water Treatment Plant manager, said the concentration has been low for at least two weeks, and that operators aren’t needing to use much more alum, potassium permanganate, and chlorine than what’s normal for this time of year.

The public’s reaction is understandable, though, given residents have been shocked for days in person and on the Internet by the sight of an emerald green, thick-as-paint algae that has overtaken the Maumee River between downtown Toledo and Point Place.

Some may have taken in whiffs of its fetid, foul-as-sewage odor along the shoreline.

Most probably are unaware of the fact that scientists, through environmental DNA evidence, know that what forms in the Maumee River and western Lake Erie each summer are genetically two different blooms that have little or no cross-over.

The blooms are expected to stick around until mid- to late-October.

Tom Bridgeman, University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center algae researcher, confirmed there’s still a lot of algae out on the lake. Mr. Bridgeman goes out on the lake for samples at least once weekly. He and a Bowling Green State University algae researcher, Tim Davis, were pulling samples from the river Tuesday. 

“It certainly look as bad or worse as it's been in recent years,” Ottawa County Sanitary Engineer Kelly Frey, who monitors Port Clinton’s intake, said. That intake is 1,500 feet from the shoreline, just west of the Portage River mouth and near the Port Clinton Yacht Club.

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An algae bloom from Lake Erie has moved into the boat basin Thursday, September 21.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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He said the highest reading out there this summer has been 3.4 ppb.

“In past years, we’ve had over 50 ppb,” Mr. Frey said. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Doug Wagner, Oregon water-treatment plant manager, said Wednesday’s test result near that city’s intake was so low microcystins were undetectable. Last week, it was 1.7 ppb. Prior to that it was 4 ppb. The highest it has gotten this summer for Oregon so far is 25 ppb, Mr. Wagner said.

He agreed the toxin is “relatively mild” given the size and appearance of the bloom.

The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department has said the recreational contact advisory it placed along the Maumee River in Toledo was based on aesthetics, not excessive toxin. Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski told The Blade last Friday the Ohio Department of Health wants local health districts to be more proactive and issue advisories when an algal bloom is obvious, whether or not there’s a lot of toxin present. 

In Canada, where much of the bloom is now headed, Colchester Beach in southwestern Ontario, between Windsor and Pelee Island, has been closed since at least Monday because of a heavy influx of algae. It is not known if the toxin level is high there.

“It is really plugged,” said Jan Ciborowski, a University of Windsor biologist who has been involved in algae research for years.

A research assistant in his lab, Jasmine St. Pierre, said she saw lots of microcystis particles at Colchester Beach when she was out there Tuesday, mostly in the harbor. She described the bloom she saw as a bright green, thick mat with a foamy texture.

“It had a sewage-like smell,” she said. “The smell was just terrible.”

The agriculturally dense Thames River, which empties into Lake St. Clair, is another one of Canada’s hotspots for algae, with blooms spotted anywhere south of London to the river’s mouth, Mr. Ciborowski said.

Water-treatment plant operators will continue to be on the lookout until the threat has subsided, despite the so far surprisingly low toxin concentrations.

“It’s a threat. There's no question it's a threat,” Mr. Frey said. “We have to take it seriously.”

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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