Dr. Carol Stepien, a University of Toledo ecology professor and director of the UT’s Lake Erie Center, told a crowd of more than 200 people at a public forum they should stock water in their basement because “the worst is yet to come.” The Lake Erie researcher was referencing the typical life cycle of a summer algae bloom in the western basin of the lake, which usually lasts until late September.
“I was both surprised by this but not surprised, because this has been coming on for a long time,” said Dr. Stepien, referencing a massive cleanup of Lake Erie in the 1970s following the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental legislation that improved sewage treatment plants and removed phosphorus from household detergents.
She and other researchers told the crowd that high levels of phosphorus in the lake are contributing to the rapid redevelopment of toxic algae blooms. Sources of the phosphorus are agricultural runoff (farm fertilizers) and large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as “factory farms.”
“Toledo is the tip of a funnel,” explained Dr. Patrick Lawrence, UT professor and chair of geography and planning, referencing Northwest Ohio as a 6,000 square-mile watershed of ditches, streams, and rivers that stretches back to Ft. Wayne, Indiana and empties into Lake Erie.
“This is a large-scale regional problem and it’s going to take a solution at that scale,” he emphasized.
Dr. Stepien pointed to a 16-point action plan put together by researchers and published by the Lake Erie Center. She also referenced lake dredging to deepen shipping channels as a possible source, stirring up phosphorus buried in sediment at the lake’s bottom.
“We need to embrace our scientific know-how, our technology,” she said. “We’ve done this before. We can do it again and clean up our water and we can clean up this problem if we act together. We know what we need to do. We know what the cause is. It is time to mobilize and act.”
Dr. Isabel Escobar
Dr. Isabel Escobar, a well-known expert in water treatment and UT professor of chemical and environmental engineering, took a sip of Toledo tap water before giving her take on how toxins reached the water intake and passed through the city’s filtration system.
Dr. Escobar, a leading Latina in the scientific community, told the crowd most people would be inclined to boil water to kill the algae. But that only makes the problem worse.
“They are producing that microcystin within that cell. It is when that cell breaks apart when it dies that it (the toxins) gets released,” she explained. “So boiling it (the water) won’t do anything. It would actually concentrate, because the water is evaporating. That is the harm in boiling the water.”
Dr. Escobar explained that perhaps the city’s water intake, which is three miles off-shore in Lake Erie. The UT researcher believes the algae bloom became so thick around the intake that water pumps and filters became so overwhelmed with it, the rapid action broke the microcystins in large quantities, overwhelming the capabilities of the water filtration plant and leaving dangerous toxic concentrations in the drinking water supply.
“Ultimately, we want to remove that cell. We want to remove the algae itself,” she said. “We don’t want it to die and explode, release the toxin.”
Dr. Stepien explained her “perfect storm” comment as conditions on the lake—a thick, pea-soup of toxic algae blown right into Toledo’s water intake crib by winds that also moved the algae bloom toward shore.
“This will keep happening. I would store your water containers in your basement and get ready for later on in the season,” she advised. “We’re not at the worst of our algae season. The worst is usually the last week of August to the first two weeks of September.”
Those toxins can make people sick with symptoms including headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. But experts emphasized no human has ever died from ingesting microcystin.
“It can cause trouble, but you really have to mix up with the stuff at really high levels,” explained Dr. Thomas Sodeman, professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at the UT College of Medicine and Life Sciences. The medical expert stated that lab mice and livestock have died from eating toxic algae, as have dogs that have ingested dried algae in large quantities.
The panel discussion of experts from UT and Bowling Green State University, held Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014 at the Driscoll Alumni Center auditorium, aimed to explain causes and effects and not to place blame—how the region got to the point of a toxin produced by algae entering Toledo’s drinking water and where leaders can go from here to address the issue of harmful algal blooms in western Lake Erie.
“We need to be proactive,” said Dr. Nagi Naganathan, interim UT president, during his opening remarks. “We will find solutions and, as a community, make the right choices for our future. This forum is just a first step.”
Editor’s Note: At a news conference on Aug. 8th, Mayor Collins and others updated the media on the problems and solutions to the current water conundrum.