At 1:21 a.m. last Saturday, the city of Toledo posted an urgent notice on its Facebook page to anyone who used city water: “DO NOT DRINK THE WATER -- DO NOT BOIL THE WATER…Alternative water should be used for drinking, making infant formula, making ice, brushing teeth and preparing food. Pets should not drink the water.”
The reason, according to the notice: “Lake Erie, which is a source of drinking water for the Toledo water system may have been impacted by a harmful algal bloom. These organisms are capable of producing a number of toxins that may pose a risk to human and animal health. [They] occur when excess nitrogen and phosphorus are present in lakes and streams. Such nutrients can come from runoff of over-fertilized fields and lawns, from malfunctioning septic systems and from livestock pens.”
The Toledo Blade texted out an alert to its subscribers at 3 a.m., and half a million people started scrambling for bottled water.
Although the notice didn’t say so, a major factor behind what the Blade described as “putrid, bright green algae surrounding Toledo‘s water-intake crib” in Lake Erie was runoff from farm fields far upstream.
Far too much of the phosphorus in manure and fertilizer applied to poorly protected fields finds its way into streams, rivers and eventually Lake Erie. Heavy spring storms make matters worse. Toxic algal blooms have become an annual event. The worst ever, in 2011, covered 1,930 square miles of the lake.
Runoff from farm fields has reversed the remarkable progress made in the 1970s and 1980s to curb phosphorus pollution. Most of improvements stemmed from the federal Clean Water Act. Permits issued by state governments under the act required sewage treatment plants to improve their infrastructure to reduce phosphorus in wastewater and avoid the release of raw sewage during intense downpours. Some states and municipalities restricted phosphorus in detergents.
Farmers, as usual, escaped legal mandates to reduce pollution washing off their fields and into streams and rivers. Instead, the federal and state governments hoped farmers would volunteer to improve their methods. Sometimes the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies enticed them with offers of cash.
But hope is not a policy. By 1995 phosphorus pollution was on the rise again.
As Toledo’s water crisis shows, the blooms are back, once again threatening public health, tourism and fisheries.
Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins lifted the ban at 9:30 a.m. today. But the crisis cost Ohioans. Lucas County Commissioners unanimously voted to seek a state of emergency declaration so Toledo could qualify for federal funds to cover expenditures caused by the water crisis. And State Attorney General Mike DeWine launched a probe of bottled water price gouging. No one expects this episode to be the last.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Seventy years of waiting for enough farmers to volunteer to curb pollution fits that definition nicely.
It is past time to require agricultural operations to take basic steps to curb pollution on their fields. Simple, well-understood conservation measures would go a long way toward saving Lake Erie and hundreds of other water bodies afflicted with periodic algal blooms. It is only fair to expect farmers to put those measures in place as part of the responsibilities that come with the rights of landownership.