I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, a once bustling metropolis. With industry having left and the information age in full swing, it is now a shadow of its former self, as in other cities of the midwest. Toledo is situated on Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes and this summer its water supply was shut down for 2 days because of the toxic algae bloom.
This algae is nicknamed Annie (Anabaena), Fannie (Aphanizomenon), and Mike (Microcystis), the three major cyanobacteria poisoning the water. These toxins come from the run-off of nitrous and phosphorous fertilizers from farm fields, livestock manure, and urban sewage overflow.
The City of Toledo presently spends one million dollars a month to chemically treat the poisoned water. This is clearly not a viable long-term solution. The problem is complex as the watershed crosses state lines therefore many jurisdictions. There is no national standard for water quality either. The federal government needs to step in and help to regulate fertilizer use, help urban areas upgrade sewage systems, and educate farmers to more responsibly farm and deal with run-offs from their fields. This is urgent. As Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, the algae bloom has been greatest there. It has been getting worse each year. To add to the problems, the zebra mussels, which have invaded the Great Lakes, have been eating the “good” algae leaving the cyanobacteria to flourish. If nothing is done, it is only a matter of time before algae blooms will spread across the region. (Two days ago, Oregon residents were “warned to stay away from Willamette River after potentially toxic algal bloom.”) National Wildlife Federation data reflects 150 different toxic algal blooms reported by 20 states just last year.
The Great Lakes provide 90% of the surface freshwater in the United States and is 20% of the world’s supply of freshwater. We need to look at the algae blooms on Lake Erie in Toledo as the canary in the mine, a most critical warning that we need to act to preserve this most precious and vital resource, before it’s “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
(The Environmental Law and Policy Center is a good place to begin to educate yourself about water issues in the midwest.)