Last weekend, Toledo's 400,000 residents were sent scrambling for bottled water because the stuff from the tap had gone toxic—so toxic that city officials warned people against bathing their children or washing their dishes in it. The likely cause: a toxic blue-green algae bloom that floated over the city's municipal water intake in Lake Erie. On Monday morning, the city called off the don't-drink-the-water warning, claiming that levels of the contaminant in the water had fallen back to safe levels. Is their nightmare over?
I put the question to Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University and a researcher who monitors Lake Erie's annual algae blooms. He said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer. But it's "pretty unlikely" that toxins will make it into the city's drinking water. That's because after the weekend's fiasco, a whole crew of public agencies, from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the US Environmental Protection Agency to the City of Toledo, have been scrambling to implement new procedures to keep the toxins out. "I think they have a pretty good plan in place," he said. But "you can't guarantee [there won't be a recurrence] because you can't predict "how bad the concentration of the toxins going into the plant [from the lake] is going to be."
Reutter added that he "anticipated" that the new system for protecting Toledo's drinking water would be more expensive than the current one. Back in January, local paper the Blade reported that Toledo "has spent $3 million a year battling algae toxins in recent years, [and] spent $4 million in 2013."
And those hard realities highlight a hard fact about our way of farming: It manages to displace the costs of dealing with its messes onto people who don't directly benefit from it. The ties between Big Ag and Toledo's rough weekend are easy to tease out. "The Maumee River drains more than four million acres of agricultural land and dumps it into Lake Erie at the Port of Toledo," the Wall Street Journal reports. More than 80 percent of the Maumeee River watershed is devoted to agriculture, mainly the corn-soy duopoly that carpets the Midwest. Fertilizer and manure runoff from the region's farms feed blue-green algae blooms in the southwest corner of Lake Erie, from which Toledo draws its water.
And those blooms don't just tie up oxygen in water and push out aquatic life, creating dead zones. They also often contain the compound that triggered the water scare: microcystin, a toxin that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, fever, and even liver damage. Apparently, a particularly noxious chunk of algae floated over Toledo's water intake equipment, causing the microcystin spike.
Back in early July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Michigan delivered their forecast for this year's bloom on the western part of Erie: It would likely be much smaller than it was in 2011, when a record 40,000 metric tons of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) accumulated, but likely much higher than the past decade's average of 14,000 metric tons—the researchers forecast a 2014 bloom weighing in at 22,000 metric tons. The blooms don't peak until September, which is why Reutter is convinced that the condition that created last weekend's troubles will likely re-emerge.