Are we saving Lake Erie?

Kelly J. Kaczala

        On Aug. 2, 2014, the City of Toledo issued a tap water ban for three days after a toxin, microcystin, was found in its water supply. High levels of microcystin, created by blue green algae, was detected in samples taken from the city’s water treatment plant in East Toledo.
        The plant draws its water from the western basin of Lake Erie, the 12th largest freshwater lake in the world. The samples showed that microcystin was detected at 3 parts per billion (PPB), exceeding the 1 ppb safety threshold established by the World Health Organization. The toxin, at high levels, can cause abnormal liver functions in humans and animals.
        Stores reported shortages of bottled water just two hours after Toledo issued the ban. Restaurants were closed unless they used bottled water for cooking, washing dishes and food preparation. It was the first time in U.S. history so many people – over 500,000 - were without tap water.
        A satellite photo from NASA showed a highly concentrated algal bloom had developed near the direct intake of the water treatment plant on Lake Erie’s shallow western basin, causing microcystin to be detected in the water supply.
        Frequent heavy spring rains flush sediments and nutrients off farm fields and into ditches and streams, which drain into Lake Erie and feeds the algae. Phosphorus, a main component of farm fertilizer, is the main driver of algal blooms.
        The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a severe harmful algal bloom in the lake this summer due to heavy rains in April, May and June.
        There are several sources that contribute to the algal blooms, including leaking septic systems. But the main culprit is the excessive fertlization of farm fields in the Maumee River watershed. The Maumee River contributes 60 percent of the phosphorus and nutrients into the lake, though it provides only three percent of the water going into the lake.
        The Maumee River watershed includes several thousands of acres of agricultural land.
        In the wake of the water crisis, The Press newspapers examined the causes of the algal blooms, how Northwest Ohio was dealing with the crisis, and looked at ways to improve the water quality of the lake. The series, “Saving Lake Erie,” published in January, 2015, took an in-depth look at the challenges that lay ahead and what was being done to restore health to Lake Erie. There was much hope that progress would be made to clean up the lake. As we approach the fifth year anniversary of the Toledo water crisis, The Press revisits the event in a three part series, “Are we saving Lake Erie?”


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