We can avoid another Toledo water crisis (guest column)By Lana Pollack, Detroit Free Press
10 August 2014
The City of Toledo water intake crib is surrounded by algae, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. More tests are needed to ensure that toxins are out of Toledo’s water supply, the mayor said Sunday, instructing the 400,000 people in the region to avoid drinking tap water for a second day.
Some crises come without warning. Others — like the contamination of drinking water for a half-million people in Toledo and nearby communities — can be foreseen and avoided.
Scientific understandings incorporated in the International Joint Commission’s report, “A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie,” lay out the links between heavy phosphorous loadings to the lake — much of it from and some from urban sources — and harmful algae blooms. The report links those algae blooms to the dangerous toxins that shut down Toledo’s water last weekend.
The good news is that the problem can be fixed.
The IJC’s report points out that municipal sewage plants were the primary sources of phosphorous in the decades leading up to the terrible algae blooms of the 1970s. Better sewage treatment, restrictions on phosphorus in detergents and other modernizations brought Lake Erie back from the brink.
The marina at the Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo was filled with algae Monday. Some 400,000 residents went days without water after an algae bloom made the area’s water unsafe to drink. / Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press
Today, the lake’s problems arise mostly from phosphorus-laden water running off fertilized farm fields. To a lesser extent algae blooms are fed by runoff from lawns, streets and parking lots, substandard septic systems, atmospheric deposition and, once-again, aging municipal water treatment systems. A changing climate and invasive species both intensify the problems.
Several of the 16 recommendations in the IJC’s report are intended to fill regulatory gaps that leave Lake Erie vulnerable. In many jurisdictions, pollution from land-based fertilizer application escapes the regulatory controls that pollution from the end of factory pipes is subjected to. Many well-meaning to reduce farmland pollution are voluntary. That leaves responsible farmers to foot the bill for doing their share of pollution avoidance, and leaves bad actors free to spread phosphorous-rich fertilizer and animal waste during cold-weather months when much of it sloughs into public waters with spring thaws and downpours.
The results are the sickening mats of algae we’ve all seen on the news, and a major metropolitan region whose residents could not drink, cook or bathe their children with tap water.
The IJC recommends that the governments of the U.S. and Canada adopt new targets that sharply reduce phosphorus loadings to Lake Erie — especially the dissolved reactive phosphorus that is particularly effective at feeding algal blooms. It calls on Michigan and Ohio to use Clean Water Act mechanisms to help achieve those targets, for restrictions on non-farm phosphorus fertilizers, for the cleanup of failing septic systems, and for the use of green infrastructure to reduce urban runoff.
Perhaps most important, the IJC recommends changes in the approach to reducing phosphorus runoff from agricultural operations. In addition to incentive-based programs and targeting, the IJC supports linking taxpayer-supported crop to environmental compliance by participating farms. The application of fertilizer and animal waste on frozen or snow-covered ground should be banned. Finally, governments should target their phosphorus reduction efforts on the most critical watersheds and should aim at reducing phosphorus runoff in the all-important spring season.
None of these actions, alone, will prevent another drinking water crisis. Few of them will be easy. But if the political will exists, we can restore Lake Erie to health. For the sake of all the people who the lake, we can no longer use the need for more study and voluntary programs as an excuse for inaction. We’ve tried that, and it’s not working.
The sooner meaningful protections are enacted for Lake Erie’s waters, the less likely we’ll see a repeat of Toledo, 2014.
Lana Pollack is U.S. chairwoman of the International Joint Commission, an independent binational organization advising the Canadian and U.S. governments on resolving boundary disputes and regulating shared waters including the Great Lakes.