Three Years Since the Toledo Drinking Water Crisis

NWF President Collin O’Mara discusses the harmful algal bloom with reporters near Toledo’s water intake cistern in Lake Erie. NWF photo by Frank Szollosi.

August 2, 2017 marks the three-year anniversary since residents of Toledo awoke unable to drink their water due to toxins from a harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. The harmful algal bloom that caused the Toledo disaster was not an anomaly: Harmful algal blooms have been increasing in the last decade not just in Lake Erie and parts of the other Great Lakes, but also in our inland lakes and rivers, including a more than 500 mile long bloom in the Ohio River in 2015. Millions of dollars spent on testing and treatment have been able to provide clean drinking water since 2014 despite algal toxin detection at water intakes. In the last three years, what has been the response to address the runoff pollution responsible for fueling the algal blooms? And, is it enough?


Several positive, constructive steps have been taken. The Ohio General Assembly passed SB1 prohibiting the application of fertilizer (with some exemptions) on frozen, snow-covered ground or saturated ground; the State of Ohio made loans available for public water supplies and wastewater treatment plants to upgrade testing and treatment facilities; the Ohio Department of Higher Education committed several million dollars to address critical science questions regarding water treatment, public health, ecological impacts and how nutrients migrate from fertilizer applications on farm fields into streams to ultimately fuel the algae.

The agricultural community is implementing a certification program for farmers and farm service dealers to ensure nutrient management on participating farm fields minimize the potential for runoff and maximize crop use of those nutrients. Agricultural groups have contributed funding to support on-farm research that will help us understand which management practices and in what combination will make the most difference in reducing runoff off from farm fields.

USEPA and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service have funded agricultural management practices necessary to prevent runoff from farm fields.

NOAA provides forecast services that enable stakeholders to understand the projected magnitude of the bloom each spring and provides bi-weekly updates during the bloom season. The spring forecast is developed in partnership with several universities using nutrient load data from Heidelberg University. These analytical tools, along with ongoing stream monitoring, are critical for understanding how Lake Erie is changing and importantly, how we need to better manage our land and water resources.

Nutrient runoff from flooding can cause harmful algal blooms, impacting communities and wildlife. Photo by USFWS


So with all of the steps that have been taken, including an investment in the science to better understand the ecological dynamics and impacts, are we likely to see change? NOAA predicts a larger than normal bloom for 2017, a 7.5 on a scale of ten and the 2017 bloom is likely to be the third largest bloom on record. We seem to be a long way from seeing improvements.

A bi-national commitment between the U.S. and Canadian governments adopted a 40 percent phosphorus reduction target under the bi-national Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Currently, governments on both sides of the border are working on plans to meet that 40 percent reduction.


We need these plans to have definitive management actions that will keep nutrients on farm fields and prevent discharges from point sources. And we need these plans to identify how resources at the federal, state, local, both public and private, will be leveraged together to produce a synthesized, coordinated effort. In the United States, we need to fully utilize the programs and authorities in the Clean Water Act to meet the goal. And all of us, those who care about our public health and water resources, need to hold our policy leaders accountable for implementation of these plans so that the target goal can be met. We must also ensure there is commitment to the analytical tools we need to understand a changing environment. Ultimately, we need a healthy Lake Erie and early summers when we no longer dread the annual algal bloom forecast.


About the Author:

Gail Hesse serves as director, Great Lakes water program, for the National Wildlife Federation. She is the former executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.