SALEM, Ohio — A two-day ban on city tap water in Toledo that affected nearly a half-million people has brought renewed attention to the algae issue in Lake Erie, and to the city’s water treatment plant, which the Ohio EPA warned was “vulnerable to failure.”
Chemists for the city detected an unacceptable level of the toxic algae known as “microcystis” Aug. 2, which is harmful to humans, as well as pets and livestock.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich then declared a state of emergency in Lucas, Wood and Fulton counties, and the issue quickly became a national and international concern.
The algae is fed by nutrients that enter the lake — especially phosphorus — from farmland, sewage systems and from residential lawn chemicals.
During the ban, the level of toxin was found to be in excess of the safe, one parts per billion. Residents were advised to use alternative water for drinking, making infant formula, making ice, brushing teeth and preparing food. They were also told not to boil the water, because boiling increases the concentration of the toxins.
Once again, agriculture was in the crosshairs.
Water treatment issues
But as of Aug. 7, reports were beginning to surface that part of the problem may lie with the city itself, which had been warned multiple times that its water treatment plant was inefficient.
In a June 9 letter from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, to Toledo Mayor Michael Collins, the EPA warned the mayor that his water treatment plant was “vulnerable to potential failures that could severely impact the city’s ability to provide adequate quantities of safe water to its citizens.”
The letter outlined multiple concerns and noted that the treatment plant was in violation for failing to correct the “sedimentation vent and alum system significant deficiencies,” as outlined in a Feb. 6 notice of violation.
In closing, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler wrote: “I cannot underscore boldly enough the precarious condition of Toledo’s drinking water system and the imminent vulvnerability to failure.”
Whether a properly-functioning water plant would have prevented the issue remains a contentious issue between the city and Ohio EPA. In the days following the water ban, Toledo also announced that it was working on one of the plant’s six “flocculators,” which mix raw water from the lake with treatment chemicals that help remove sediment and algae.
According to an Aug. 5 press release, the improvements would “help address the current challenge faced by the blue-green algae bloom occurring in Lake Erie.”
The fact that Lake Erie’s issues are multi-faceted does not surprise farmers whose fields drain into the lake. While they acknowledge their own role in the matter, they are fully aware of the other contributors, as well.
Nate Andre, of Andre Farms near Wauseon, operates an EPA-certified food waste and custom manure application business, and also grain farms. Following the ban, he was prohibited from moving any waste from Toledo, because of the risk it contained toxins.
He said farmers near the lake take the issue seriously, but share only part of the blame.
“Yes, we need to keep doing a better job of what we’re doing,” said. But it’s not just the farmers that are the problem.”
Like other farmers in the area, he practices various conversation measures to keep nutrients in place, like grid sampling and precision nutrient application, and tile controls.
One thing farmers cannot control is the weather, which affects how nutrients move, how the lake behaves and in some cases, how much sewage leaks into the lake from inefficient water treatment plants.
Andre said the recent event was likely made worse by strong winds, that pushed the bloom toward Toledo.
“Is that an act of the farmers or an act of nature,” he asked. “There’s a little more of this picture than just blame the farmers.”
Farm groups respond
The Ohio Farm Bureau, in a statement, commended Toledo and the rest of Ohio for rallying together to address the situation, and the long-term issue.
“As members of our communities, farmers believe in acting responsibly and want all Ohioans to know that we are concerned about Ohio’s water quality challenges and are committed to finding solutions,” OFBF said in a statement.
“The harmful algal bloom issue is complex, and many groups and institutions are working to understand all of the factors involved,” OFBF continued.
The Ohio Farmers Union called for more oversight and regulation of manure application, while also acknowledging that agriculture is just one contributor.
“The entire blame for Lake Erie’s woes should not be laid at the feet of farmers,” according to OFU. “On the other hand, OFU remains supportive of targeted, reasonable regulation to hold agriculture accountable for its role.”
Ohio farmers and the state legislature developed new regulations earlier this year to address the nutrient-algae issue, including a statewide requirement that farmers who apply chemical fertilizer, will need to be state-certified, and can have their certification revoked for failing to comply with state rules.
Farmers and commodity groups also continue to educate their employees about the newest and best practices for applying nutrients. They’re also funding more than $1 million in research, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Ohio State University, to find solutions to the problem.
In June, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its research partners predicted that western Lake Erie would have a significant bloom of toxic blue-green algae, but that the bloom would be less intense than in previous years.