Sunday, August 3, 2014

Toledo's water crisis: what's polluting Lake Erie?

Residents of the Toledo area are currently experiencing a water crisis. For the second day, Toledo's water supply has been contaminated by a toxin called microcystin, rendering the water undrinkable. The toxin is the result of yearly algae blooms in Lake Erie, caused by runoff from farming operations that contaminate the western half of the lake. Traditionally, prevailing currents in the lake send the algae to the center of the lake, leaving Toledo's water intake unaffected. However, this year, unusual weather patterns have pushed the algae bloom to the shore, turning the Lake Erie shore into a pea soup and leaving a half-million people without water.

Phosphorus is the major culprit for this bloom. Evolving commercial farming practices down the Maumee River corridor and the farms along the lake shore have led to an increase in phosphorus fertilizer runoff to these bodies of water. Unusually heavy rainfall has drenched farms and sent fertilizers straight into federal waterways. When it storms heavily, an algae bloom can almost certainly be expected to follow.

The problem is only going to get worse. Ohio has experienced a 37 percent increase in heavy rain events since 1958. Combined with the yearly world increase of fertilizer use of about 3%, what we have left is an infrastructure that is woefully lacking, unable to cope with climate change, further driving the Midwest into decline as the federal government allocates funds elsewhere.

Phosphorus and other fertilizers aren't the only issue with Lake Erie water quality. Any resident of Greater Cleveland have probably heard the term "combined sewer overflow" -- the practice of connecting storm sewers to sanitary sewers. When a region with a combined sewer overflow experiences heavy rains, the storm sewer overflows the sanitary sewer, intermingles sewage with rainwater, and the slurry mix is discharged into Lake Erie. The communities of Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Akron and Buffalo all contribute to the problem due to their aged and insufficient stormwater management systems. Some communites are making headway -- after being sued by the EPA, Cleveland's NEORSD has committed to invest over $3 billion in a CSO control project that basically amounts to a longer pipe to the treatment plant. There is a price tag to this effort, however -- it will cause sewer bills to rise by 13% per year for several years as the NEORSD makes its customers pay for its lack of stewardship over the lake waters.

Detroit's CSO and toxic waste discharge is probably the worst threat, and is likely contributing to today's algae bloom. In 2009, Detroit's sewage plant reported that it dumped 32 billion gallons of untreated overflows into the Detroit River, which provides about 90% of Lake Erie's inflows. Although Detroit also has a plan to build a holding pipe to its treatment plan like Cleveland, the current financial state of the city caused them to halt the project in 2009, forcing Lake Erie to continue its role as the sewage dumping ground for Detroit.

Lake Erie pollution is a national problem. Over eleven million people directly draw their drinking water from the lake. The lake's commercial fisheries comprise of the majority of the Great Lakes' $7 billion fishing industry. Our local communities are going bankrupt desperately trying to save our water supply. If the federal government doesn't step in to address Great Lakes water quality issues, we may lose our country's most valuable water resource forever.

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