Toxic Lake Erie algae spotted but drinking water safe

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Samples taken from Lake Erie have shown traces of the toxic algae that led to the shutdown of the water system in Toledo and southeast Michigan last summer. But the algae has not appeared in what consumers drink.

That water does not pose a health risk, according to a post on the city of Toledo’s website.

“Microcystin has been detected in the intake crib 3 miles out on Lake Erie, but not in drinking water,” the post reads. “Our water is safe to drink.”

The toxin microcystin is a component of the algae that has become an annual occurrence in the lake’s western basin during the past decade. Last year produced the worst results. Toxic algae detected in drinking water forced Toledo’s system to shut down for two days in August. More than 400,000 people in Ohio and Michigan’s Monroe County were without water.

Officials have said they are better prepared this year for such problems.

“The city’s water treatment process is effectively removing the microcystin through its routine process,” Toledo’s website states. “Accelerated treatment is not needed at this time.”

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials are also monitoring the situation.

“As I understand the situation, last year’s emergency in Toledo was the result of a bunch of worst case scenario factors converging,” DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said in an emailed response to questions. “...This year they report being significantly more prepared to deal with whatever comes. And that is a good thing, because what appears to be coming is a big algae bloom.

“Specialists in the Michigan DEQ’s drinking water program continue to work with and keep in contact with Toledo counterparts and monitor the lake conditions. We share a commitment to making sure drinking water remains safe.”

On Tuesday, officials with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the Michigan Agri-Business Association held a joint press conference to call for new research into the algae problem in the Great Lakes. For years, researchers have pointed to phosphorus entering local watersheds through runoff — often from farms — as a main culprit in the creation of microcystin.

“It will take all of us working together to address this critical issue, and that’s why we’re partnering with the Michigan Agri-Business Association and others to call for aggressive research to fully understand the causes of algae blooms and identify new and better policy tools to address them,” said Michigan LCV Deputy Director Jack Schmitt.

This year could potentially be worse than last year, according to forecasts. Earlier this month, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Michigan said Lake Erie’s algal blooms will likely be larger in 2015.

“While this year’s toxic algae forecast for Lake Erie calls for a bloom larger than the one that shut down the Toledo area’s water supply last summer, bloom predictions, regardless of size, do not necessarily correlate with public health risk,” said Don Scavia, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Michigan. “Local weather conditions, such as wind direction and water temperature, also play a role.”