August 5, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Lake Erie 'wake-up call' buoys conservationists

Horacio Romero of Toledo, Ohio, looks at algae Monday in Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio. (Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images)

Conservation groups are hoping the calamity of this past weekend’s water contamination in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan serves as a wake-up call to address the problems posed by algae in Lake Erie and what contributes to it.

Algae contamination of the drinking water has happened before and is likely to happen again, experts say. But it’s a problem that might have been prevented if steps were taken that have been under consideration for years.

City of Toledo officials lifted Monday a three-day ban on drinking water from Lake Erie. Water contaminated by toxic algae had been detected in the areas of East Toledo and Point Place communities. The ban affected 400,000 Ohio residents as well as another 30,000 residents in Monroe.

Scientists have been anticipating the day when toxic algae would appear in the drinking water supplies of residential communities along Lake Erie’s western shore. For many of them, the weekend alarms that went off when water testing showed contamination were hardly a surprise.

“Personally, I think this is a wake-up call,” said Christine Mayer, a professor of environmental science who works at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center. “This is a time when our decision-makers and our society need to evaluate whether it’s time to help move forward with regulation of the factors that contribute to the algal blooms.”

The region received a warning last year when toxic algae forced the Carroll Township water plant in Ohioto shut down as well. Microcystis can cause skin irritation and nausea when humans are exposed to it. No cases of exposure have been reported in Michigan or Ohio during the past week.

Following the closure of Carroll Township’s plant, communities began asking state and federal government officials for help in the form of testing standards and regulations, said Sandy Bihn, executive director of Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association — a Toledo-based non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the lake.

But no such help has been forthcoming, Bihn said.

“What has happened is the water plant operators have voluntarily tested for (algae contamination) and they have added treatments to try and deal with the situation,” she said. “They have been very proactive. But we need federal and state governments to come in and give us standards.”

For more than a decade, researchers and conservationists who study Lake Erie have watched as blooms of algae have become an annual occurrence — fouling beaches, tangling boat propellers and making swimmers think twice about diving in. Despite the appearance of toxic algae called Microcystis, the effects on human health so far have been limited.

In addition to testing standards, environmental groups have been pushing for governmental limits on the amount of phosphorous that is finding its way into Lake Erie. Nutrients such as phosphorous — found in fertilizers and in combined sewage overflows — are the main drivers behind the growth of algal blooms.

Monday, conservationists renewed their call for action.

“What happened in Toledo over the weekend is hardly surprising,” said Lyn Thorp, national campaign director for Clean Water Action. “It fits the pattern that we see time and time again — because we refuse to protect clean water upstream, we rely on our Public Water Systems to solve preventable pollution problems.”

Thorp’s organization calls for:

■Limiting the amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen that run off into a watershed, particularly from agricultural operations.

■Strengthening the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers to protect streams and wetlands.

■Coordinating better implementation of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts.

Michigan officials, however, said they already have taken several steps to address the algae problem.

“We’ve banned phosphorous in lawn fertilizer,” said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, in response to questions. “We’ve established a premier best practices-based regulation for large farms and partnered with the agricultural community on programs like MAEAP and CREP to help protect surface waters. We’ve worked with contributing wastewater treatment plants to bring down phosphorous and much, much more.”

Without reductions in the nutrients that reach Lake Erie, the region could easily see more drinking water bans. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor say this year is hardly the worst for Lake Erie’s algae. Both 2013 and 2011 produced much larger blooms.

The unusual features of the lake — its relatively shallow waters and susceptibility to wind shifts — make it more susceptible to this kind of problem.

Toledo’s water intake, located far off-shore in at least 18 feet of water, should have been protected. In this case, winds are believed to have pushed the algae into a single location, forcing the blooms downward toward the intake and leading to contamination.
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