The Algae That (Almost) Ate Toledo

Summertime in Toledo: Lakeside barbecues, Mud Hens double-headers, and toxic algae blooms.

Wesley Allsbrook

Brenda Snyder wasn’t supposed to be at work on August 1, 2014. The chief chemist at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant in Toledo, Ohio, was taking a vacation day at home, enjoying some downtime before the anticipated arrival of last year’s late-summer algal blooms. Although the expected peak of the blooms was still a few weeks away, Snyder knew that once the cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, started spreading like scum over the surface of Lake Erie’s western basin—the source of Toledo’s drinking water—it would require constant vigilance at the plant to protect people from microcystin, the liver-damaging chemical it produces. Best to relax a bit, Snyder figured, and conserve her energy before the onslaught.

But a TV reporter had asked for an interview that Friday afternoon, and Snyder had agreed to come in for a few hours. Before she went home, two chemists on her staff who had been performing routine tests shared some curious data with her: Most of the recently collected samples had tested comfortably within the safety zone for microcystin, but Friday’s levels had spiked almost sixtyfold over the previous day’s. At 2.5 parts per billion—the equivalent of 2.5 blades of grass on a football field—these microcystin levels now represented more than double what the World Health Organization suggests is the safe limit for drinking water.

The results seemed squirrely to Snyder. Could they have been caused by a new method of prepping water samples? Was there a flaw in the test kit, perhaps? Or could it be that the mother of all algal blooms had just descended—rapidly and, until now, unnoticed—over Lake Erie? “I couldn’t explain why,” Snyder says. “There had been no imminent indicators, the things we normally watch for to warn us that there’s an algae bloom in the lake.”

A 2.5 ppb reading, if accurate, could jeopardize the drinking-water supply for the half-million people served by Toledo’s plant. Scientists needed to retest the water, both on-site and elsewhere, to see if the spike was real. Snyder knew she wouldn’t be returning home anytime soon.

*     *     *

Toledo sits on the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie and carries with it chemical leachings from the corn and soybean fields that dominate the river’s 8,300-square-mile watershed. Principal among those chemicals is phosphorus, the fertilizer ingredient that nourishes blue-green algae and promotes toxic algal blooms whenever the conditions are right.

Photo: NOAA

A generation ago, America was still congratulating itself for having brought Lake Erie back to life. In 1969, Time had described this shallowest of the Great Lakes as a “gigantic cesspool” filled with “odoriferous green scum” and “in danger of dying by suffocation.” Not long before that, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, an Erie tributary, had caught fire. Citizen outrage over the ruin of these iconic bodies of water had helped spur Congress to pass the Clean Water Act, which imposed strict regulations on industrial discharges. That 1972 law, combined with a pact between the United States and Canada, triggered a sharp reduction in the amount of phosphorus flowing out of factories and wastewater-treatment plants. For a while, the algal blooms abated.

But then they returned. And since the mid-1990s, they’ve actually been escalating—culminating in a record 2011 bloom that ended up covering almost 2,000 square miles of the lake between Toledo and Cleveland. On July 9, 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its research partners revealed that scientists are predicting this summer’s algal bloom to be among the very worst to hit western Lake Erie—possibly approaching the intensity of the 2011 bloom, which rated an impossible-to-top 10 on the severity index’s 1-to-10 scale.

How did things go so wrong? While the Clean Water Act addressed pollutants spewing from factory and facility pipes on the federal level, it did virtually nothing to crack down on so-called “nonpoint” sources of pollution—such as the phosphorous-heavy runoff from farms. As a matter of regulation, this runoff is considered to be in the domain of land use, which, according to Ken Kilbert, director of the University of Toledo’s Legal Institute of the Great Lakes, “has historically been a state and local province.” And for their part, states have typically been reluctant to pass binding restrictions on nonpoint pollution—in part, Kilbert says, because of the fear of “political pushback” from the agriculture industry.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its research partners revealed that scientists are predicting this summer’s algal bloom to be among the very worst to hit western Lake Erie.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act, farms have grown and cultivation methods have changed, with both developments bringing unintended consequences for Lake Erie. Today growers spray fertilizer on the surfaces of their fields without tilling it into the soil. In addition, applications have become more common in the fall and winter—sometimes while the ground is still frozen. These practices make it easier for phosphorus to wash off with the arrival of heavy spring rains. Add to these factors the growing use of drain tiles—perforated pipes that wick off excess water from the fields but also funnel the phosphorus more efficiently into the lake—and you’re essentially gathering up all the necessary ingredients for an algal bloom.

Natural safeguards, too, are disappearing. “You can drive all over the place here and you’ll see cornfields right next to the road with no buffer strips, no riparian zones, no swales in the fields to collect water,” says biologist Carol Stepien, director of the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center. “Remember, the wetlands that were originally here were our natural biological filters for the lake, and they would get rid of chemicals and excess nutrients. But now we don’t have that.”

Compounding the problem presented by farm runoff are two other changes to the lake’s ecology. One is an invasion of zebra and quagga mussels that has been taking place over decades, since the late 1980s: Believed to have arrived in North America via the ballast tanks of European ships, these mussels consume benign algae but reject the toxic cyanobacteria, giving the latter a competitive advantage. The second, of course, is climate change: more intense spring rains, warmer temperatures, and calmer summer winds—all of which favor hearty algal blooms.

Photo: NOAA CoastWatch

Other sources of phosphorus can include livestock waste and failing septic systems. But the lion’s share of it comes from row-crop agriculture, according to numerous experts and studies. Farmers have tried implementing a host of voluntary “best practices” to reduce runoff. But these efforts haven’t been enough. Research suggests it will take a 40 percent reduction in phosphorous to deter the algal blooms in Lake Erie. (Lake Erie Center aquatic ecologist Thomas Bridgeman believes climate change could end up pushing that threshold even higher.) A joint study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the University of Michigan, and Indiana’s Grace College recently concluded that best practices—implemented at the level considered feasible by farm experts—would reduce nutrient loading from the Maumee River by only 10 percent.

“The problem isn’t farmers,” says Don Scavia, a coauthor of the study and the director of the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute. “The problem is farm policy. We’re just overwhelming the system by the number of acres we’re planting with industrial corn”—a taxpayer-subsidized crop that’s used in the production of ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, and livestock feed for the meat-heavy American diet. Current U.S. law mandates the production of corn-based biofuels in large volumes.

Despite repeated calls by environmental groups, including NRDC (disclosure), for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish federal numeric water-quality standards specifically designed to address nutrient pollution, the agency has yet to act in any way more forceful than encouraging states to come up with their own standards—which, so far, very few states have shown a willingness to do. Such standards, says NRDC’s Ann Alexander, would signal to states that the EPA was finally “setting numbers for the maximum concentration of these pollutants in a healthy stream”—regardless of their source—“rather than generalized narrative prohibitions against too much algae.”

There are other legal solutions, but they’ll require boldness. “What if we passed a new energy law that said we still have to have the same amount of ethanol but prohibited the use of corn?” Scavia asks. “That [could] jump-start the technology for using other feed stocks. Would it push the farmers into growing other crops? Would we start replacing corn with things that aren’t as leaky, or as polluting?”

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Andy McClure, the superintendent of Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, was finishing up a round of golf during a family visit to Buffalo, New York, when his phone rang on the evening of August 1, 2014. It was the plant’s head of operations—and the distress in his voice was evident. “It looks like we have some test results coming in high,” McClure recalls being told.

McClure skipped his usual post-game beers and went to bed early that night, with plans to cut his visit short and return to Toledo the next morning. But the ringing cellphone kept interrupting his sleep—starting with another call from his operations head, this one coming in at midnight. Chemists had confirmed the high microcystin level; they would continue conducting tests throughout the night. Then, at 3 A.M., came the call that a plant operator never wants to receive: Toledo’s mayor, on the advice of state officials, would presently be issuing a do-not-drink advisory to all 500,000 Ohio and Michigan residents who use Toledo’s water. Consumption of that water, in the wording of a wee-hours e-mail, could “result in abnormal liver functions, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, or dizziness.”

Public officials were scrambling to secure enough bottled water to quench the thirst of an entire city during the hottest month of the year.

The next day’s 300-mile drive home from Buffalo to Toledo felt like “walking the green mile,” McClure recalls. As his wife drove, tracing the southern coast of Lake Erie, he maintained phone contact with his staff. Meanwhile, friends were pinging him with droll text messages. (“When can I stop washing dishes with my pee?” was the gist of one of them that he remembers especially well.) Arriving home that afternoon, he reported immediately to the county’s 911 center, which had been set up as a staging ground for the emergency response. “It was a beehive,” he remembers. Public officials were scrambling to secure enough bottled water to quench the thirst of an entire city during the hottest month of the year. News vans were parked outside. McClure was quickly pulled into a series of conference calls with government officials, where he did his best to answer scientific questions on the fly.

For the next 48 hours, McClure did little else but work, catching naps wherever and whenever he could. Elsewhere in Ohio and Michigan, government and university labs were analyzing Toledo’s water supply independently; each round of tests involved collecting samples from local fire hydrants, gas stations, and chain restaurants, and then racing them—under police escort, blue lights flashing—to waiting planes. “You’d get these calls: Are you almost there? The plane’s only on the ground for another half-hour,” McClure says. “You didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t get those samples there on time.”

Photo: AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariA sample glass of Lake Erie water on August 3, 2014

With no more bottled water to be found at local stores, Ohio Governor John Kasich called up the National Guard to distribute bottles and ready-to-eat meals to citizens. Red Cross volunteers made deliveries to the homebound. “There’s no need for the community to panic,” said one leader of a local nonprofit. And by and large, Toledoans didn’t. At the Collins Park plant, employees kept running tests—and kept cranking up the levels of chemicals (such as powdered activated carbon) to eliminate all the microcystin that had entered the city’s water supply. By Sunday, the numbers appeared to be moving in the right direction, even though the bloom had yet to move off the intake. (“Which, to me, is proof that the treatment works,” says Brenda Snyder, who has since retired from the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant and now works for the Lake Erie Center.)

Even so, two Toledo neighborhoods continued to report discomfitingly high toxin levels in their water. At 3 A.M. on Monday, the city’s visibly sleep-deprived mayor (who passed away in February 2015) called a press conference to announce that his advisory was still in effect. “I’m not going to isolate part of the city,” he explained. “My prayer is [that] by early-morning hours, we will see a light at the end of this tunnel.” It would take one more round of testing—representing another six-and-a-half-hour wait—before he would finally issue the all-clear.

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On April 22, 2015—Earth Day—city and state officials in Ohio gathered for a media briefing in the lobby of the Collins Park plant, beside an Art Deco tile map of the city’s water-supply system. It had been almost nine months since the previous summer’s water emergency, and much had happened to help the city avoid a recurrence. City officials had expedited the acquisition of the monitoring buoy. They had started upgrading the plant and fine-tuning their water-purification methods. And experts from the EPA were at that moment finishing up the agency’s first-ever standardized guidelines—to be released the following month, in the form of a report—regarding what constitutes “safe” exposure levels to cyanobacteria.

“Some people say the first Earth Day celebration was organized, at least in part, after the dramatic news videos of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire,” Craig Butler, director of Ohio EPA, said to those in attendance. Likewise, he said, Toledo’s recent crisis had “reminded us—like the Cuyahoga River did then, in 1969—that we can’t put off difficult decisions when our drinking water, and when our health and economy, are at risk.”

With that, Butler announced the awarding of $6.5 million in interest-free loans to the City of Toledo for a package of upgrades to its water system. The state government, he added, would also be distributing $1 million to a number of Ohio communities along the Lake Erie shoreline for new equipment and training to detect cyanobacteria toxins, and another $2 million to universities for research into algal blooms. In addition, the state’s EPA director touted a new state law, which took effect July 3, 2015, that would place new limits on the application of fertilizers on frozen, snow-covered, and rain-soaked soil in Lake Erie’s western basin. “There’s more to come,” he promised.

Summer algal blooms are already the new norm. And they’re not going to go away unless we really change our agricultural practices.

But Butler, who serves a Republican governor who has made the state’s “business-friendliness” into a political talking point, stopped short that day of endorsing mandatory controls on runoff from farms or other nonpoint sources. Officially declare the Maumee River watershed “distressed,” which would automatically trigger new state restrictions? “Probably not the best option,” Butler said. Endorse tighter federal regulations? “We’re not completely opposed to anything,” he responded. “But I think we have a really robust network [of state agencies and] a lot of different mechanisms outside the Clean Water Act to work at nonpoint source. Is it perfect? No. But we think it’s pretty effective.”

Effective enough to achieve a 40 percent phosphorus deduction? “Like I said,” Butler replied, “we’ll probably need to continue to look at additional changes in policy, the additional use of science. And perhaps some legislative action may be necessary.”

To be sure, systems upgrades are good things, as is an increase in funding for studies and responsiveness training. But in the absence of mandatory controls—enshrined into law and enforced by the state—summer algal blooms on Lake Erie, birthed by farmers’ runoff and nurtured by climate change, are only going to become more intense and more difficult to handle, year after year. They’re already “the new norm,” says the Lake Erie Center’s Carol Stepien. “And they’re not going to go away unless we really change our agricultural practices.”

Making deep cuts in phosphorus runoff will be a formidable task, particularly given the resistance to new regulation in Ohio’s capital. But Lake Erie replenishes itself every 2.7 years—which means that an inflow of clean water over a three-year period could eliminate the presence of harmful cyanobacteria in relatively short order. If Ohioans could manage to muster the political will to move beyond funding new studies, buying new monitoring equipment, and encouraging voluntary “best practices,” it could make a real difference.

“We did it once before, after the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act,” Stepien adds. “And the lake came back immediately. We can do the same thing now.”

Photo: Ohio Sea Grant/Flickr

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