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Toxic Algae Problem Likely To Get Worse Before It Gets Better


This summer many Midwestern lakes had a toxic algae problem. In August it became so bad in Toledo that it had to impose a drinking water ban. Some expected the Toledo experience to be a wake-up call. But as Lewis Wallace of member station WYSO reports, the state of the drinking supply in the region may get worse before it gets better.

LEWIS WALLACE, BYLINE: Six weeks since the shutdown, a lot of Toledo residents find themselves still drinking bottled water, residents like Aasiyah Taalib-deen and Kennesha Gregory.

AASIYAH TAALIB-DEEN: I won't the water because even though they said it was safe, I don't believe them.

KENNESHA GREGORY: I'll shower in it, but I won't drink it.

WALLACE: We're on the street just a couple miles from the city's treatment plant where Andy McClure, the plant manager, shows off giant, gray vats of lake water. It's getting mixed up with chemicals that bond with the blue-green crude.

ANDY MCCLURE: This is a flocculation basin, you know, it's a big enough clump you can actually see it there, and you can start to see it's separating from the water.

WALLACE: But the causes of the toxic bacteria start hundreds of miles from here. The algae is fed by natural and commercial fertilizers from all over the watershed - from farms, livestock and city sewers. All that gathers in the shallowest part of Lake Erie , the Maumee Bay. And as the water warms, the bacteria go wild. But Tim Murphy, Toledo's head of water treatment says right now a lot of the fixes are happening right here on the treatment side. He says the city's spending about a million dollars a month to keep this water drinkable.

TIM MURPHY: We're treating symptoms of a bigger problem ,and we need to get to the bigger problem or else we're going to keep having this battle and, not just us but every drinking facility located in the Western basin, is going to have this problem and probably others - so.

WALLACE: And others do have this problem already, small lakes all over the Midwest have been getting clogged with algae in the warm summer months. The solutions, though, are a patchwork. Ohio farmers are working on a fertilizer certification program. Cities are trying to get the funds they need to fix their sewer systems, and researchers are trying to pinpoint the sources of the nutrients that feed the green slime. Sandy Bihn with the environmental group Lake Erie Water Keeper, says since the problem is regional the solution should be, too. She's looking through her living room windows out at the lake.

SANDY BIHN: If you see that light house out there, just on the other side of that is Michigan.

WALLACE: Indiana and Ontario are also part of the picture, but right now there's no clear central leadership on the issue. Bihn wants to see something more like what the Chesapeake Bay has in place - a federal plan for recovery, run by the EPA.

BIHN: It's multijurisdictional, and that's why I say the federal government needs to step up.

WALLACE: And there's something else that crosses lines - climate change. More intense rains made runoff harder to avoid, and warmer waters stimulate more algae growth. Last week a group of scientists took Ohio's Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown out on a boat - a pontoon boat to look at the algae. The water's choppy and blue, but the green goo is still there below the surface. A water sample comes out.

CHRIS WINSLOW: Vegetable smoothie?

WALLACE: Scientist Chris Winslow with Ohio State says most of the nutrient runoff in a given year can happen during just a few big storms.

WINSLOW: It's happening in these very short pulse windows. They're associated with these severe storm events.

WALLACE: He and the other scientists patiently explain that any solutions could take a while. The nutrients already in the water are pretty hard to get out and the changing climate makes all this even more difficult. Along with Ohio's Republican Senator Rob Portman, Senator Brown introduced two bills last week. One would create a federal database for research and the other would set federal drinking water standards for the toxins.

SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: When 500,000 people lose their drinking water and there's no reason we won't see other big algae blooms in the next five or 10 years and if the climate is changing, there is not time for delay.

WALLACE: But delay is in the forecast. A program that requires Ohio farmers to get certified before they put down fertilizer is now law, but that won't go into full effect for three years. For NPR News, I'm Lewis Wallace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lewis Wallace comes to WYSO from the Pritzker Journalism Fellowship at WBEZ in Chicago, where he reported on the environment, technology, science and economics. Prior to going down the public radio rabbit hole, he was a community organizer and producer for a multimedia project about youth and policing in Chicago. Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., Lewis spent many years as a freelance writer, anti-oppression trainer, barista and sex educator in Chicago and in Oakland. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Northwestern University, and he has expanded his journalism training through the 2013 Metcalf Fellowship for Environmental Journalism and the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.