Last weekend’s water crisis in Northwest Ohio brought untold amounts of hardship, sacrifice and inconvenience to about 500,000 residents. It also, however, has brought heightened levels of awareness to the dangers of a toxic environmental threat.
The crisis unfolded 170 miles northwest of Youngstown in Toledo. There, between early Saturday morning until mid-Monday morning, a half-million people lost a critical lifeline to their supply of fresh, clean drinking water. City and state leaders ordered residents there not to drink their tap water because the supply from Lake Erie had been fouled by what officials have targeted as Harmful Algal Blooms.
Overreaction? Not hardly.
Harmful Algal Blooms, which are rapid increases in the population of algae in an aquatic system, pose serious health risks to humans, fish, wildlife, the environment and the economy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The accumulation of the largely microscopic toxins depletes water of oxygen, creating massive dead zones. When they ooze into a drinking-water supply, they discolor H20 from fresh blue to pea green, a look that is disgusting in both its appearance and impact. HABs can cause diarrhea, vomiting and serious abnormalities in liver function.
In the immediate aftermath of the toxic trouble in Toledo, state and federal environmental health officials should spare no energies in studying the major contributors to the foul-water panic and work to prevent any recurrences. Officials have said early indicators point to microcystin, a toxin in HABs, breached an eight-step treatment process at city water-treatment plant.
That’s the same toxin that killed 75 people in a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1995, prompting a major investigation by the CDC.
NOT A NEW THREAT
For years on this page, The Vindicator has warned about the potential dangers of a multitude of threats — from voracious Asian carp to loathsome algal blooms — to drinking-water supplies in general and to Lake Erie specifically. Any attacks on Lake Erie represent attacks on 11 million people who get their drinking water there, on freighters who make their livelihood shipping there and on families and entrepreneurs who use the waterway and its beaches as sources of recreation and tourism.
Clearly, the stakes are high in cleansing Lake Erie and other critical waterways in Ohio, the U.S. and the world of HABs. Sadly, the response thus far has been a mere trickle of what’s truly needed, many health and environmental authorities say.
To their credit, however, the Ohio Legislature and the U.S. Congress have begun to take serious note of the HAB threat. The state General Assembly adopted and Gov. John Kasich in June signed Senate Bill 150, which requires farming operations larger than 50 acres to either become certified by the state or hire a state-certified applicator before applying fertilizer to their land. The goal of the new law is to reduce fertilizer runoff into lakes, rivers and streams that leads to excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algal blooms to form and grow, the EPA says.
For his part, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman has led successful legislative efforts to increase federal involvement and support in the war on algal blooms in the Great Lakes.
Credible critics argue that much more is needed, including tighter restrictions on fertilizer use and other phosphorus runoffs plus more infrastructure funding to update outdated water-treatment plants nationwide.
For all of its horrors and hurt, the water crisis in Toledo this week can bring some lasting relief if it helps to press this state and nation toward further action to mitigate the HAB threat.