End the Algae Assault: Great Lakes Mayors Should Push for Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Protection Rule

"What Lurks Below" image by Milosh Kosanovich

The nation was greeted last month with the distressing news that nearly a half-million Americans were robbed of access to drinking water by toxic algae blooms near Toledo. It is amazing, spooky and utterly unacceptable for the citizens of a civilized nation to be deprived of safe and sufficient water because of pollution and inadequate infrastructure—especially when they are  perched at the edge of the Great Lakes; the world’s largest source of surface fresh water, and 95% of the fresh water in the USA.

In an important Op-Ed in The Blade Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines, Iowa Water Works, makes clear that the issue is not unique to Toledo and northern Ohio. Algae explosions are clogging inland waterways and lakes throughout the nation. Numerous cities in America are in imminent danger of experiencing the same problem of poisoned water. As Mr. Stowe makes clear, the only reason Des Moines has not gone through the same crisis, is that his city pulls drinking water from two rivers, and is able to alternate between the two, when one or the other is dangerously contaminated. Note: both rivers have been rendered undrinkable by algae, just not at the same time. He thinks it is only a matter of time before both are impacted at once. Sobering stuff.

Here in Chicago, we also must take note.

We cannot complacently imagine that we are protected by the fact that Lake Michigan is deeper and thus less prone to poisoned conditions than Lake Erie. The City wisely chose to up its testing in the wake of Toledo’s troubles—especially as other parts of “our Lake” are being similarly degraded. Check out the series of articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s investigating algae blooms crippling Green Bay  and it’s clear that there is very real work to be done in our neck of the woods too. Stowe’s Toledo op-ed is a clarion call for aggressive action to deal with both the water and carbon pollution issues fueling the algae blooms. And he hopes that Ohio and Iowa will lead on both issues.

I hope that will happen—but the City of Chicago should step in right away regardless.

Rahm Emanuel is convening a summit of regional mayors to discuss water quality in the Great Lakes. I hope they will focus on the twin terrors at the heart of this algae assault: water pollution and climate change. With the Great Lakes on the front lines in both fights, this summit is an opportunity for the Mayor to galvanize support for fixes on both issues being debated nationally right now that would go a long way to stemming the algae assault:

  • We are seeing decades-old predictions from climate science coming to pass in the region with serious economic, health and quality of life implications. And if their algae predictions come to pass, it’s going to be a lot worse. Mayor Emanuel must lead the Mayors to aggressively support President Obama’s historic Clean Power Plan to slash carbon emissions. Their voices are necessary and will be powerful.
  • We need to make it harder to pollute America’s waters. Ohio has waged a veritable war on wetlands, which is problematic since they actually help filter the fertilizer that fuels these algae blooms out of runoff. Now is the time for the Mayors to support the important Clean Water Protection Rule (also known as Waters of the US) which would return legal protections to streams, wetlands and headwaters—ending a source of pollution flowing into our larger bodies of water like the Great Lakes.

It is time to get serious about stopping climate change, making our cities more resilient, and protecting clean water. Otherwise, Toledo’s troubles will soon be our own.


"What Lurks Below" image by Milosh Kosanovich