Blue-green algae back with a vengeance

Blue-green algae back with a vengeance

Residents of Toledo, Ohio are still worried about drinking their water after toxic algae got into the water system in August and caused a two-day shutdown. Legislators and scientists are scrambling to find solutions to the growing problem with algae blooms in midwestern water.

It’s an issue that affects the entire Great Lakes region, but for now, all eyes are on Toledo and the shallow western basin of Lake Erie, where the problem is concentrated. That pollution actually starts far upstream — and it’s not just about the algae.

Annie, Fannie and Mike

First, a few names you’ll need to know: Annie, Fannie and Mike.

Annie stands for Anabaena, Fannie stands for Aphanizomenon, and Mike stands for Microcystis,” explains Chris Winslow, associate director of the Stone Lab at Ohio State. We’re out on a pontoon boat with a group of scientists taking water samples. “They’re the three major players that are in the lake. “

These three types of greenish little cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, bloom in warm, shallow parts of Lake Erie in the summer and early fall, and can release toxins that are unsafe to drink in high concentration.

“Even if you look over the edge of the boat, you will see tiny green flecks in the water,” Winslow explains. “That is the cyanobacteria that you’re seeing.”

The water is choppy and blue, but Annie, Fannie and Mike are lurking down below, and what comes up in the sample is a thick green goo that someone jokes looks like a vegetable smoothie.

The last few years the blooms in Lake Erie have been out-of-control, with the worst bloom on record taking over the Maumee Bay area in 2011, and bad blooms returning in 2012 and 2013. Their growth is stimulated by natural and commercial fertilizers that run off from farm fields, manure from livestock, and sewage overflows from aging city water systems.

Nitrogen and phosphorous concentrate in the shallowest part of Lake Erie and feed blooms of the toxic cyanobacteria in the summer. Later, massive die-offs of the algae eat up oxygen at the bottom of the lake, creating dead zones that can span up to half the lake’s surface area.

One of this year’s blooms, though not as expansive as some other years, ended up directly over the water intake for the city of Toledo in early August. When water officials tested the water and found cyanotoxins at above one part per billion, the limit recommended by the World Health Organization, they shut down water services to an estimated 450,000 people for two days.

Toledo pays the bill

People in Toledo are living with the consequences of the dispersed pollution.

“I won’t drink the water because even though they said it was safe, I don’t believe them,” said Aasiyah Taalib-deen, an 18-year-old first year college student who grew up in Toledo.

She says water trouble is bad for the economy — her workplace closed during the water shutdown. “If the water crisis keeps going on it can shut somebody’s business down, and that can affect a lot of people’s money.”

It’s already affecting a lot of people’s money — mainly, the people who pay for Toledo water, and water users in surrounding areas that get their water from Lake Erie. In 2013 nearby Carroll Township’s water system was shut down by the algae, a sneak preview of what happened in Toledo that some were hoping would be a wakeup call.

Over at the Toledo water treatment plant, lake water gets mixed up with a chemical that bonds with the cyanobacteria to separate them out in giant gray vats. Right now the city spends about $1 million a month to separate out Annie, Fannie and Mike, plus the costs of regular, voluntary test for the toxins.

Each test is over $400 to run and about a half a day’s work for one person; during the algae-heavy summer months, the city generally tests once a day. In the coming year, the city plans to invest in temporary barriers that would keep more of the algae from even entering the system.

“We’re treating symptoms of a bigger problem,” says Tim Murphy, Toledo’s head of water treatment. “We need to get to the bigger problem or else we’re gonna keep having this battle, and not just us but every drinking water facility located in the western basin is gonna have this problem, and probably others.”

Smaller lakes across the midwest are getting clogged up every summer; they just happen not to be drinking water sources, but those algal blooms can lead to swim and fish advisories.

Still, Murphy says he believes the problem can be solved. “I think it’s a hundred percent fixable.”

The problem starts upstream

The fixes start a long long way from the coast of Lake Erie. The watershed that drains into the lake at Toledo, the Maumee River watershed, extends all the way to Indiana, and more than a hundred miles south into Ohio. Countless farms, golf courses and lawns wash out into it, and right now there’s not much in place that limits fertilizer use.

Still, farmers say they have plenty of interest in solving the problem.

“My largest expense is fertilizer,” says Paul Herringshaw, who farms 1500 acres outside Bowling Green and sits on the board of the Ohio Corn Marketing Program. “If I’m losing it down the stream, then I’m literally throwing money down the stream.”

Herringshaw drives his truck out over a wide strip of grass that separates a soybean field from a drainage ditch. Conservation strips like this are a relatively easy way farms can absorb some of the runoff before it hits the water, but the nutrients aren’t just running off the field from the top; Herringshaw’s farm, like many in the region, uses what’s called a tiling system to keep the field well-drained from below.

Herringshaw says that’s necessary to farm this land.

“There’s a saying that the old-timers had, and it is so very true, that ‘in a dry year a farmer around here worries to death, in a wet year around here he starves to death.’ We suffer more from too much moisture than we do from not enough moisture,” he explains. “So this tile system here is designed to get rid of the water so that we’re able to farm the ground.”

A lot of farmers just let this water flow out through the underground tiling, but Herringshaw has installed controls on his — he’s put in a dam system so he can close up the outlet at the edge of the field and keep it from draining out. He also uses an acre-by-acre grid to determine how much fertilizer to use in different areas, and avoid over-fertilizing.

Even these simple controls, though, are an expense. A new state law will eventually require farmers here to get permits to fertilize, and the training would teach them about responsible fertilizing practices, but right now nothing requires Ohio farmers to limit runoff from their fields.

Climate change worsens the threat

There’s probably going to be more runoff as intense downpours become more common due to climate change. Although this summer was something of a break from the heat, predicted warmer water temperatures in the lakes also encourage bacteria to grow in the summer.

Climate change is just one of several factors that has scientists concerned that this problem will become even more widespread in the Great Lakes. Invasive zebra and quagga mussels have played a role in giving the toxic cyanobacteria a competitive advantage in Lake Erie’s ecosystem; the aggressive invasives consume the “good” algae rapidly, leaving even more space for the toxic cyanobacteria to thrive.

“It’s gonna take a combination of efforts throughout the entire ecosystem,” says Stuart Ludsin, a biologist with Ohio State. “We need to think about the climate, we need to think about invaders, we need to think about nutrients, you can’t do them in isolation of one another.”

Ohio’s senators have introduced a few bills in recent weeks that would put some more responsibility on the feds to monitor the situation, but there’s no real central leadership; the solutions remain a patchwork of local, state and federal efforts.

‘Why the land wins and the water loses’

“It’s multi-jurisdictional, and that’s why I say the federal government needs to step up,” says Sandy Bihn, an environmental advocate with Lake Erie Waterkeeper.

She wants to see the EPA get involved, starting with regulating the toxins from cyanobacteria. Chicago and other cities ran voluntary tests after Toledo’s shutdown, but right now there’s no federal protocol or drinking water standard; cities like Toledo who test regularly aren’t required to do so under any law.

Bihn says there’s another shift that needs to happen. She says right now, the land, and its uses for farming, industry and development, is taking precedence over water.

“I would venture to say that most people, when their water runs off their land would not know where their streams are,” she says. “How it connects to the lake...most people have no clue.”

Watersheds cross state lines, but water policy often doesn’t. Bihn thinks that needs to change in the Great Lakes.

“I mean we have, what, 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply here in the Great Lakes, 95 percent of the U.S. surface freshwater? This is the greatest economic opportunity we’ll ever know,” she says. “Water is becoming a more scarce resource...and shame on us if we keep giving excuses for why the land wins and the water loses, which is pretty much what I see.”

She says when she first moved out here, she used to go out to the beach and swim. That was a minor miracle: Lake Erie had just been cleaned up after decades of industrial pollution.

Now, when she wants to swim, she heads for her swimming pool.

Lewis Wallace is a reporter for WYSO, the public radio station for Dayton, Springfield and Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Front and Center is funded by the Joyce Foundation: Improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country.