The 400,000 residents of Wood and Lucas County, Ohio — including the state’s 4th largest city Toledo — are without drinking water with no guess as to when it will be safe to drink.
Algae blooms in Lake Erie that produce toxic bacteria are responsible for the crisis. Governor Kasich has declared a state of emergency and water supplies are pouring in from all over the state.
The blooms have become an annual event along Lake Erie’s shores as runoff from agricultural and industrial sources cause the algae to experience runaway growth. The algae releases toxins that, if sucked into water treatment plants, make the water undrinkable.
News of the contaminated water touched off a shopping frenzy at area stores for bottled water and bags of ice. Shelves were emptied of bottles and other water supplies, as residents prepared for the worst.
“First and foremost, residents must remain calm,” Toledo Mayor Michael Collins said at a morning press conference.
Toledo officials issued the warning early Saturday after tests at the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant showed two sample readings for microcystin above the standard for consumption. The plant provides treatment services to an area of approximately 400,000 people across 100 square miles, according to The Toledo Blade.
Officials said the water is not for drinking or cooking but healthy adults could still use the water for bathing. They warned children not to bathe or swim in it, as they might drink the water accidentally. Residents were warned not to boil the water because it will only increase the toxin’s concentration. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and upset stomach.
In a press release, the city of Toledo said the toxins likely came from harmful algal blooms in nearby Lake Erie.
“These organisms are capable of producing a number of toxins that may pose a risk to human and animal health,” the release said.
Area zoos and restaurants closed, and the University of Toledo announced it will be closed Saturday and all non-health-care functions canceled. Toledo Lucas-County Public Libraries also announced closings.
“We’re testing the water. We’ll have updated test results later this afternoon,” Lisa Ward, Collin’s spokesperson, told the Toledo Free Press. “We are currently working to restore water supplies and working on a different water distribution.”
Meanwhile, other municipalities were making their own arrangements. Luna Pier, Mich., officials were making plans to funnel water from Monroe Township, according to the Free Press. Fire trucks will pick up the water and residents will be able to fill water bottles after noon Saturday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted something like this would happen weeks ago:
The reemergence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie is an ecological and economic setback for communities along the coast,” said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, from Ohio’s 9th congressional district. Kaptur said NOAA’s forecast model is one of several emerging tools aimed at trying to “restore balance to Lake Erie’s ecosystem.”
The blooms form during the late summer and early fall, and were particularly aggressive from the 1960s to the 1980s, according to NOAA. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports banning phosphorus in laundry soap in 1988 helped put the brakes on the toxins — for a few years.
But phosphorus from farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants continues to accumulate along Ohio’s shores, and the blooms have become more frequent and troublesome in the shallow Lake Erie in the past decade. The blooms have been blamed for contributing to oxygen-depleted dead zones in the lake where fish can’t survive and forcing cities to spend more money to treat drinking water.
Rick Stumpf, a researcher with NOAA, said the algae bloom in 2013 was worse than expected because of heavy July rain.
“If we have an exceptionally wet July, we may revise the forecast,” Stumpf told The Blade. “But it won’t be lower than it is now.”
The lake was also warm by June 2013, contributing to the outbreak, the researcher said. The lake is believed to be about as warm as it was last summer, said Tom Bridgeman, an algae researcher at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center.
Lake Erie is a lot cleaner than it used it be — one of the true success stories brought to us by the Clean Water Act. But contaminated runoff close to the shores of all the Great Lakes threatens not only the water supplies of communities, but the economies of the small towns and hamlets that depend heavily on tourism and sport fishing.
In the last decade or so, the government has been working with farmers and industry to reduce runoff into streams and rivers that flow into the Great Lakes while also trying to reduce pesticide and fertilizer contamination. It will take years for these policies to bear fruit, which means there will probably be more nightmares like the one in Ohio in the future.