Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Could Toledo see a repeat? Expert says it’s likely

Gibraltar Island, Ohio — The water crisis that hit Toledo in early August could very well strike again later this summer, an algae bloom expert said.

“It’s highly likely that Toledo will see this happen again,” said Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant program and Stone Lab on Lake Erie.

A major factor in August’s blue-green algae bloom on Lake Erie was a northerly wind that pushed the algae right up to the city of Toledo’s water intake on the lake, Reutter said.

Flooded by the tides of phosphorus washing into the lake from fertilized farms and leaky septic systems, the most biologically productive of the Great Lakes is again being choked by blue-green algae and the toxins that it produces.

The major culprit in all of this pea soup mess is the Maumee River, the largest tributary on the Great Lakes that drains 4.5 million acres of farmland.

“That should tell you what the water in that tributary typically looks like,” Reutter said.

Lake Erie has witnessed a renaissance in recent years after much trouble in the 1960s.

“We went from being the poster child for pollution (in the 1960s) to the walleye capital of the world,” said Reutter, who is director of the oldest freshwater research facility in the nation.

The facts that Lake Erie’s western basin is so shallow at an average depth of 24 feet and is the warmest of all of the Great Lakes have combined to help create the toxic brew that the lake experiences.

“Things in the western basin happen very quickly,” Reutter said.

It’s not just an Ohio problem: algal blooms occurred in 21 states in 2012, said Reutter.

The majority of phosphorus loading into the lake happens during storm events.

“When it’s not raining, we’re not having phosphorus going into the lake,” Reutter said.

Earlier this summer, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that this year’s algae bloom on Lake Erie would be about average.

“We estimate the size of the bloom,” said Reutter, who was also part of the prediction team. “What is impossible for us to predict is the toxicity of the bloom.

“Clearly, the blooms are getting worse and growing in intensity,” he said.

If the same situation does arise again in Toledo this summer, residents shouldn’t live in fear of toxic water, Reutter said. City officials, with guidance from the World Health Organization, will issue a do not drink order if the toxicity becomes too high.

“People should never be concerned that they’re drinking toxic water,” Reutter said. “ … If that orders not out there, you’re safe.”

Could this happen in other Ohio cities like Cleveland?

Not likely, Reutter said.

“Cleveland is much more capable of handling this situation,” he said. “ … Cleveland has four (water) plants and four intakes (on Lake Erie). So, if a bloom surrounds one of its intakes, they can just draw from another.”

The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force, of which Reutter is a member, recommended  a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus going into the lake.

Soil testing has shown that 30 percent of Ohio farm fields have more phosphorus than they need.

“If we reduce the phosphorus load by 40 percent, we would expect to see recovery (on Lake Erie) very quickly,” Reutter said.

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