Algae surrounds the city of Toledo’s water intake crib in Lake Erie.
Toledo‘s water emergency is over, for now. But the condition that created it — toxic algae in Lake Erie — remains to be addressed. It is a matter of urgency, for this community’s future genuinely depends on its prompt resolution.
The don’t-drink-the-water advisory, which lasted for more than two days before Mayor D. Michael Collins lifted it on Monday, resolves the immediate crisis for the Toledo water system’s 500,000-plus customers. But merely resuming business as usual is not an option.
Lake Erie — especially its shallow western basin near Toledo — must be scrubbed, to prevent this year’s algae blooms from stimulating a repeat crisis and to minimize next year’s and future blooms as much as possible.
This is not a matter for endless further hearings, studies, debate, and incremental gestures. It is a matter for immediate mobilization by state, local, and federal officials who are in a position to impose whatever mandates are required for a quick, effective cleanup. That is, treating this ecological disaster as the continuing emergency it is.
Microcystin, the poison that caused Toledo’s water crisis, is a product of slimy green algae in Lake Erie’s western basin. This is hardly a recent development; similar toxic algae blooms have fouled the lake for the past two decades.
The chief contributor to toxic algae growth is phosphorus-laden runoff that enters the lake from rivers and streams, notably the Maumee River. The major sources of this runoff are excess fertilizer and manure from farm fields and large livestock feeding operations.
Voluntary isn’t good enough
Last November, a task force that included officials of Gov. John Kasich’s administration and environmental experts offered proposals they said would cut by 40 percent the amount of phosphorus that enters Lake Erie from rivers and streams in northwest Ohio. They suggested such things as setting specific targets for phosphorus loading in the Maumee River watershed and other area waters, expanding phosphorus monitoring and research programs, and educating farmers on proper application of fertilizer.
The Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority, an international commission, has offered related recommendations, such as restoring wetlands near the lake and prohibiting farmers from spreading manure on frozen ground. Such initiatives need not impair the productivity of northwest Ohio agriculture; to the contrary, they could save farmers money by reducing the use of fertilizer.
But these proposals are good ideas without the force of law. It’s time to crack down on farms and feeding operations — especially big factory-type enterprises — that refuse to use and dispose of fertilizer and manure responsibly. Voluntary actions taken by some area farmers to reduce runoff have been necessary, but clearly are not sufficient.
What needs to be done will require Mr. Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly to overcome their disdain for regulation — even during their re-election campaigns. It will require more than political slogans about the “right to farm” and the “war on farmers.”
In Washington, Congress and the Obama Administration need to increase, not cut, federal aid to restore the Great Lakes and to support local clean-water initiatives, including those that enable communities such as Toledo to improve their water and sewer systems. They also need to fund adequately a law sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) that aims to mitigate harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie and other freshwater bodies.
What about the plant?
And in the city, it’s time for Mayor Collins’ administration to make clear to consumers what they’re getting for the hefty water rate increase that took effect this year, ostensibly to upgrade the Collins Park water treatment plant. If more needs to be done — and more money needs to be spent — on the plant, let’s hear about it.
Toledo and Oregon operate separate water systems with intakes close to each other in western Lake Erie. Oregon’s ability to avoid an emergency similar to Toledo’s deserves closer examination. What did the two systems do differently? Are there lessons for Toledo from how Oregon tests and treats its water?
In the slightly — but not much — longer term, other things must be done to alleviate the algae threat. Toledo City Council must approve the funding needed to complete the upgrade of the city’s sewer system, even if that means a sizable rate hike for sewer-service customers.
That will greatly reduce the release of raw sewage — another source of phosphorus — into Lake Erie and its tributaries during severe storms. If, as Mayor Collins suggests, sewer systems in Michigan communities continue to engage routinely in such discharges, that activity needs to be a matter of urgent attention for federal regulators.
The practice of dumping huge amounts of silt from Toledo’s shipping channel into Maumee Bay — another big contributor to the algae plague — must stop, not merely be curtailed. Local, state, and federal officials are looking at other ways to dispose of some dredged sediment. They need to find other options for all of it, and quickly. Open dumping is an equally bad idea for Lake Erie near Cleveland.
In a larger sense, elected officials at all levels need to stop denying, and start responding meaningfully, to the effects of human-made climate change — yet another factor in the formation of toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie.
On Monday, Governor Kasich called Lake Erie “our crown jewel” and insisted that “we must remain vigilant in our ongoing efforts to protect it.” Yet just weeks ago, the governor and legislature froze Ohio’s successful clean-energy standards — an action that is likely to contribute at least marginally to further climate change in the state.
Threat to Toledo isn’t over
Images of Toledo’s water emergency have attracted worldwide attention — notably pictures of the green scum that covers much of the lake near our area. It’s hard to imagine that such repellent images will attract businesses and residents to the city and its suburbs. And the crisis affects not just northwest Ohio, but also the rest of the state, adjacent Michigan communities, and nearby parts of Canada.
Ohioans have been reminded repeatedly of the value of Lake Erie to our state’s economy and quality of life: the fishing and boating and tourism industries it supports, the jobs and revenue and shoreline property values it sustains, the drinking water it provides.
Toledoans discovered over the weekend the negative consequences to the region when the lake takes its revenge for the way humans have abused it: threats to public health and safety, disruption to local restaurants and other businesses, additional burdens on hospitals.
It’s heartening that, for the most part, Toledoans and their neighbors responded positively to the crisis, staying calm and helping people get drinking water. But such voluntary efforts, however valuable, will not by themselves overcome the larger crisis.
In the 1960s, Lake Erie was North America’s equivalent of the Dead Sea. The United States and Canada spent more than $8 billion in the 1970s and 1980s to clean up the lake. After 20 years of backsliding, an equivalent campaign is needed now to bring the lake back to life.
Toledoans, and the elected officials who represent them, must resolve to do what it takes to clean up Lake Erie for good. The alternative is stocking up on bottled water — lifetime supplies.
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