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Top Stories Of 2014: Lake Erie Algae Crisis Was Year's Biggest Environmental Story

Flickr.com photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
Flickr.com photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

You’re listening to Morning Edition, I’m Nick Castele. This week, we’re launching a series of reporter debriefs on the issues of 2014. Joining me today is ideastream’s Brian Bull, who’ll talk about what he considers the biggest environmental story of the year. Hello, Brian!

Bull: Hello, Nick!

Castele: So there’s lots to choose from….from shale to the polar vortex to the always looming threat of Asian carp. But Brian, I understand none of these are your pick.

Bull: Those are important stories Nick, but my top environmental story would be the toxic algae blooms that erupted across Lake Erie, and caused a major public health scare in the northwest Ohio city of Toledo last August.

Castele: So what lead up to this crisis? There are algae blooms across the Great Lakes every summer, many are large enough to be viewed from space.

Bull: Scientists say there’s been a series of factors…from a steadily warming climate to phosphorous runoff from farms to Lake Erie’s shallower depth…all combined to make an especially toxic cocktail this summer. Then the sludgy, green bloom was blown over to the city’s intake point.

Here’s Mayor Michael Collins at the height of the incident, in an Associated Press video:

Mayor Collins: “The algae bloom …it’s all in that same area. Unless we experience a strong southwest wind to move that further out into the lake, we’re going to continually see the same problem as we extract water from the lake and into our systems.”

Castele: Three days without drinking water in Toledo. The Mayor and his staff were bombarded with press, not to mention upset and frantic Toledo residents who wanted to know if they were at risk.

Bull: Yes…about half a million people, without access to one of life’s most essential needs: water! Save for what they were able to buy from stores. Gallons – entire pallets – of drinking water were snatched up by people worried over just when their tap water would be safe again.

When the alert was lifted a few days later, Toledo Mayor Michael Collins himself toasted the city with a glass of what was presumably local tap water….

Mayor Collins: “Here’s to you, Toledo! You did a great job!”

Bull: Managers of the water system used both activated carbon at Lake Erie’s intake point, and chlorine to the treatment system to clean water. And so far, that solution seems to have held. For now.

Castele: Studies show that out of Great Lakes, the Lake Erie gets 44 percent of the phosphorous runoff. And commercial fertilizers and manure runoff from farmlands, these have all been sources of that phosphorous.

Bull: Correct. There are also invasive species blamed, like zebra mussels and quagga mussels that eat algae but filter out the microcystins, those are the toxins created by blue-green algae that’s behind the blooms. Some scientists say climate change is exacerbating the problem by increasing storm activity, and therefore runoff from the aforementioned farmlands, as well as storm drains and other infrastructure from city areas as well as ag sectors.

Castele: All this publicity has prompted some response, surely. Are we seeing preventative efforts from lawmakers and others?

Bull: Earlier this month, Toledo Mayor Collins called on President Obama to sign an executive order that would protect Lake Erie’s water quality. No idea if such an executive order is coming from the White House.

But the Ohio House last month passed legislation that would ban farmers in northwest Ohio from spreading manure on frozen fields. The latest spending bill – while renewing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – also dilutes regulations on irrigation ditches and agricultural ponds, and drops an EPA rule that would have bolstered conservation measures on farms. On the flip side, the US EPA just last week announced over 3 million dollars’ in GLRI funds to federal and state agencies to target toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie.

And when I last talked to Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler, he said that this incident could fast-track upgrades to the water treatment system across the Great Lakes…

CButler01: “It’s going to take a collective effort by not just agriculture, but by us working with our wastewater treatment plant facilities to make sure we’re controlling phosphorus, working with the departments of health to make sure that their rules are …they’re working on some new rules to regulate on-lot septic systems for private homes. All of those are kinda spokes in the wheel if you will, about how you try to find a collective solution.” (:21)

Bull: So we’re talking a process that’ll take a lot of time, effort, and collaboration, even if no one’s eager to repeat this incident.

Castele: ideastream’s Brian Bull. Brian, thanks for coming in!

Bull: Thank you, Nick!