Toledo’s water crisis blamed on lake algae bloom

Toledo, Ohio — Toxins possibly from algae on Lake Erie fouled the water supply of the state’s fourth-largest city on Aug. 2, forcing officials to issue warnings not to drink the water and the governor to declare a state of emergency as worried residents descended on stores, quickly clearing shelves of bottled water.

On Saturday Aug. 2, Northwest Ohio residents awoke to a “do not drink, do not boil, do not touch” water advisory issued overnight by the City of Toledo. The ban was lifted on Monday, Aug. 4.

The reason for the ban was due to unsafe levels of the algal toxin microcystin detected in the finished water by Toledo’s water chemist on Aug. 1. The toxins in the water were blamed on an algae bloom on western Lake Erie, from which the city draws its water.

Within hours of the announcement, virtually all of the major big box and grocery outlets in Toledo had lines wrapping around the buildings, awaiting each store’s opening as people rushed to stock up on cases of bottled water. Soon thereafter, supplies of water in most other towns not even affected were also wiped out by panic buying and hoarding.

Unless they could demonstrate that they could operate without using tap water, local restaurants were urged to close due to the absence of safe water for hand washing, cooking, dishwashing, produce washing, and other functions.

The Toledo Zoo closed for the day to conserve water for their animals and all school sporting events and city libraries were closed for the day. Local kidney dialysis centers also postponed treatment for their patients.

To pinpoint the exact levels of algal toxicity, finished water samples were sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Cincinnati, the EPA in Columbus, and Lake Superior State College in Duluth, Minnesota.

While no official federal or state drinking water guidelines exist for microcystin levels, the World Health Organization recommendations are less than 1 parts per billion for drinking and less than 20 ppb for contact with skin. Ohio EPA issues a recreational public health advisory for beaches when levels exceed 6 ppb and a recreational no contact advisory when it exceeds 20 ppb.

The result of the tests of finished water by the water treatment plant chemist was quoted by officials to be over 2 ppb.

Mayor D. Michael Collins, Toledo city council, Lucas County commissioners, state and county health department leaders, and representatives from the governor’s office formulated plans to cope with the emergency. U.S. Representatives Bob Latta and Marcy Kaptur and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman also were on hand at the Toledo/Lucas County Emergency Services Center.

Portman made contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warning it that its assistance might become necessary if the problem lingered for days without a solution.

The mayor indicated that people should treat this event as seriously as a Stage 3 snow emergency. Gov. John Kasich declared the “crisis” a “state of disaster” and authorized the Ohio National Guard to assist as needed with its water transport trucks. State aircraft were used to transport the water samples to the testing labs.

“What's more important than water? Water’s about life,” Kasich said. “We know it’s difficult. We know it’s frustrating.”

Toledo supplies its water to more than 400,000 residents in over 20 communities without its own water treatment facilities in Lucas, Wood, and Fulton counties in Ohio and in Monroe County, Michigan.

In southern Michigan’s Monroe County, a few additional communities served by another water utility, the South County Water District, has similar warnings.

Last summer, when Ottawa County’s (Ohio) Carroll Township finished water tested at 3.56 ppb on Sept. 5, 2013, it affected more than 2,000 of its residents. Fortunately, the county water utilities department was able to provide safe water to Carroll Township residents until the algae bloom passed.

Later, government officials admitted that Toledo luckily dodged a similar crisis, but in doing so had to spend $4 million on treatment. Toledo does not have another source of municipal water as a backup plan.

As of press time, no other communities had water emergencies in effect. However, Maumee Bay State Park, on the opposite (west) side of Little Cedar Point from the Toledo and Oregon water intakes, is under a recreational use advisory for microcystin levels of 19 ppb on July 28.

The city of Oregon provided free tap water to residents who brought their own containers to their fire stations to fill. Both cities draw their raw water from Lake Erie just east of Maumee Bay.

Water was redirected from retail warehouses and even jails in cities such as Columbus, Akron, Piqua, Delaware, and Cincinnati, with trailers of bottled water gong to several distribution centers set up around Toledo. The major grocery outlets were restocked by mid to late afternoon with millions of bottles of water, with more deliveries arriving in the following days.

While the results of the finished water testing have been kept under wraps, Aug. 3’s tests began to show improvements in the finished water results, according to Toledo’s Mayor Collins. He announced very early Aug. 4 that two neighborhoods tested over 1 ppb, several were right at 1 ppm, and the rest were “clean.”

The algae bloom typically lasts into October, so this could be an ongoing problem for communities along the western basin shoreline until then. But, more frequent testing and heavier use of activated charcoal could help keep water safe to consume.

The water use advisory remained in effect as of 8 a.m. on Aug. 4, but a resolution was expected by the afternoon.

Algae blooms during the summer have become more frequent and troublesome around the western end of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes.

The algae growth is fed by phosphorus, mainly from farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants, leaving behind toxins that have contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can’t survive. The toxins can kill animals and sicken humans.

Scientists had predicted a significant bloom of the blue-green algae this year, but they didn’t expect it to peak until early September.

There were no reports yet of people becoming sick from drinking the water, Collins said.

Operators of water plants all along Lake Erie, which supplies drinking water for 11 million people, have been concerned over the past few years about toxins fouling their supplies.

John Myers, a farmer from nearby Swanton, loaded 450 gallons of well water into a container in the back of his pickup truck and gave it out for free in a high school parking lot.

“The more you got, the more we’ll fill,” he told residents carrying empty containers. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d be giving water away.”

Myers said his concern was that the advisory could go on for days.

“This is a lot more serious than anybody’s thinking about,” he said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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