If what happened in Toledo this month doesn’t scare you, it should.
In a modern U.S. city — on the Great Lakes, the nation’s most expansive freshwater resource — some 400,000 residents went days without water after an algae bloom turned the waters of Lake Erie into something resembling pea soup. Treated water was unsafe for human consumption, even if boiled, even for bathing or cleaning dishes.
Here’s the worst part: This crisis was almost entirely man-made. And unless something changes, it will keep happening.
The toxin microcystin was produced by a blue-green algae in Lake Erie. States don’t require testing for this toxin, and there are no state or federal regulation of acceptable standards of microcystin, which can cause health problems such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, liver inflammation and pneumonia. When coming in contact with skin, it can cause rashes, hives and blisters.
This type of algae needs warm temperatures, nitrogen and phosphorus to grow. Nitrogen and phosphorus arrive in lake waters via sewerage overflows and runoff that contains agricultural and residential fertilizers. Humankind is providing the warmer temperatures through climate change.
Ecologists suggest in a story by the Detroit Free Press’ Keith Matheny that the problem could occur again as blooms expand in late August and early September.
This isn’t the first time algae blooms have threatened Lake Erie. In 1960, the lake’s oxygen levels dropped so sharply that it was declared “dead” because of algae blooms. Its recovery is largely the product of standards put in place by the U.S. Clean Water Act. But in 1995, algae blooms began again, the Toledo Blade reports, as researchers tracked an increase in the amount of phosphorus deposited in the Maumee River.
If the impacts of pollution or climate change seem largely theoretical to you, what happened in Toledo should bring it all very, very close to home.
There are a number of practical policy steps any state with significant freshwater resources should be taking. First is to develop state safety standards to provide guidelines for acceptable quantities of nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus, something few states have,according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an important part of reversing the impacts of pollution. Ditto microcystin.
At the federal level, lawmakers should stand firm behind the Clean Water Act.
There’s no credible scientific counterweight to theprevailing opinion that climate change is happeningand that it is caused by human activity. Yet policymakers continue to wrangle over the reality of climate change as though it’s fringe science. There are sensible steps that can and should be taken to curb human behavior that causes climate change, but it’s a question lawmakers — particularly on the Republican side of the aisle — aren’t taking seriously.
Eleven million people rely on Lake Erie for drinking water, 26 million on the Great Lakes.
If the water crisis in Toledo doesn’t spur voters to demand response and lawmakers to take action, what will?