Failed algae policies leave Toledo high and dry

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


Toledo citizens were without water this past weekend as life-threatening toxins caused by harmful algae far surpassed safe levels.

That’s 400,000 people left to scramble for water wherever they could find it.

Ohio declared a state of emergency and it was one of those all hands on deck situations.

Toledo without water because of toxic algae? We shouldn’t be surprised.

The signs of a significant toxic algae-driven water crisis have been evident for years.

In 2011, a record bloom occurred in western Lake Erie.

In 2013, the International Joint Commission released a report calling for agriculture to reduce phosphorous application to fields. Ag is the primary source of phosphorous.chicagoview

The Toledo Blade’s Tom Henry has made a career out explaining the science and risks of toxic algae.

In September of 2013, toxic algae fired a shot across the bow of cities in western Lake Erie. Carroll Township in Ohio had to shut off water to 2,000 residents because levels of toxins far exceeded safe limits.

We were warned.

What did we do?

In 2011, politicians grabbed microphones and said we must do something, citing the incredible value of Lake Erie and the need to protect the source of drinking water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at a meeting of the Great Lakes community in Detroit declared combating algae one of its top priorities.

Ohio’s farmers slowly stopped denying the obvious and said they wanted to be part of a solution to the algae problem.

Then what happened?

Not much.

The EPA and other federal agencies have thrown money into research and to provide incentives for farmers to voluntarily use best practices. Voluntary measures to fight algae are rarely successful. Check the history of the Chesapeake Bay.

Ohio recently passed a weak bill on algae that will have little if any impact. The same is true of a bill sponsored by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

We’re essentially staying on the same path that the International Joint Commission report said was “clearly failing.”

What’s next?

There will be the obligatory political oratory, but will politicians do anything meaningful?

They carry the burden to prove they understand that the status quo is untenable.

Environmental groups now have all the ammunition they need to take on the federal and state agencies and tell them to get serious and stop the studying and monitoring — plus the coddling of agricultural interests.

Whether they will is a question. Great Lakes groups have been loathe to take a tough position, especially when it comes to challenging the EPA.

On July 11, I wrote that it’s up to Ohio citizens to demand that their drinking water be made safe. You can’t count on politicians, state or federal agencies, environmental groups or anyone for that matter.

That applies to other issues, too.

Sewage dumping into the Great Lakes — Detroit’s is a contributor to Lake Erie’s problems — will continue until we demand and are willing to pay for a full investment in infrastructure and fully adopt green water management practices in our cities.

When Toledo gets past the crisis and the “what now” phase emerges, I hope the discussion will be honest and direct.

People need to step back from talking points and entrenched positions. It will be necessary to leave comfort zones. Hard decisions will have to be made — the type of decisions that will leave some folks unhappy but the rest of us safer.

Historically we aren’t willing to do that.

We dance around the tough issues like toxic algae by throwing money at them when the problem can’t be fixed by money.

We do what’s politically possible and call it progress instead of what’s necessary.

That’s why Toledo has been without water.

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5 thoughts on “Failed algae policies leave Toledo high and dry

  1. Lake Erie has no management plan – there is no accountability for phosphorus reductions for grants issued. Lake Erie projects that get funded because of algae/phosphorus do not measure before or after a project to determine the reductions nor are projects targeted for the greatest phosphorus reductions at the least cost. And the only focus is voluntary fertilizer reductions while waste water, urban storm, manure, failing septic systems are not being called out to reduce nutrient loads.

  2. Ohio and all other states around the Great Lakes got what they voted for. The toxic algae is only one issue of several bad voting choices made.

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