Toledo's Drinking Water Crisis

Toledo residents can breathe a sigh a relief today after a two-day drinking water ban was lifted.  Early Saturday morning, Toledo’s 500,000 residents (and 30,000 residents of southwestern Michigan) were told to stop using tap water after unsafe levels of toxins, likely caused by Lake Erie algal blooms, were found at a city water treatment plant.  It’s great news that Toledo’s drinking water is safe again, but this crisis is likely to be repeated across the Great Lakes Basin if action isn’t undertaken to protect critical water resources, address the long-term problems of nutrient pollution and better prepare our communities for the impacts of climate change.

Algal blooms aren’t new to southwestern Lake Erie; in 2011, the blooms were so large they could be seen from space.  


Photo courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

But this is the first time in recent memory that the blooms threatened more than fishing, swimming and other recreational activities that bring Ohio more than $17 billion per year in tourism spending

U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a rule that would help protect drinking water supplies and the waters that serve as habitat for fish and other wildlife.  For years the Clean Water Act protected all wetlands and tributaries in Ohio and across the Great Lakes region — those by the shore and those inland. However, many of these wetlands, streams and small lakes have been at increased risk of pollution and destruction following Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that created a confusing, time consuming, and frustrating process for determining what waters of the nation are protected under federal law.

The draft rule would restore Clean Water Act protections to wetlands and tributary streams (you can read more about the history of the rule here).  These waters provide important filters for nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients that can fuel algae blooms.  The Great Lakes region has already lost about 66 percent of its historic wetlands; Ohio has lost 90 percent of its wetlands, the second highest loss rate in the nation.  

The Clean Water Protection rule will ensure that the drinking water for more than 117 million Americans, including more than 30.6 million in the Great Lakes Basin, will be better protected after more than a decade in legal limbo. This includes the more than 60% of Ohio streams that serve as surface water sources of drinking water.

Wetlands do more than capture nutrients; they are called “nature’s sponges” because of their ability to soak up rainwater – one acre of wetlands can store 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater.  Wetlands also provide critical habitat – about two-thirds of Ohio’s threatened and endangered species require wetlands during some point in their life cycle.

The Clean Water Protection Rule enjoys strong support from sportsmen, Evangelical Christians, craft brewers (including Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company), small businesses, including the American Sustainable Business Council and the Latin Business Association, and rural organizations, like the Center for Rural Affairs.

All of these folks understand the connection between upstream pollution and the health of downstream waters.  The Healing Our Waters (HOW) Coalition strongly supports the rule because their membership recognizes that the long-term goals to restore the Great Lakes, including the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative-funded habitat and ecological restoration projects, cannot be met without protecting the Basin’s remaining wetlands and streams.

Unfortunately, many Republican members of the House of Representatives, including those in Ohio, are fighting this important, common sense approach, even joining a letter condemning the Clean Water Protection Rule that contains multiple inaccuracies, exaggerations, and downright falsehoods, and that was pointed out to Representatives specifically.  

In the past, Ohio supported the Clean Water Act protecting a wide range of smaller and seasonal waters.  In 2003, the State’s Department of Natural Resources asked EPA to protect intermittent and ephemeral streams under the Act.  In 2006, the Ohio Attorney General joined a brief with 32 other states that supported protecting wetlands near a wide of range of tributaries.

The people in Toledo and all of us who rely on drinking water that is fed by and kept clean by these small resources should support protecting them.   Weigh in with your support here.