Toledo drinking water contamination is sign of bigger problems for Lake Erie

Nick Fetty | August 5, 2014
Blue green algae grows near Duncan's Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)
Blue green algae floats near Duncan’s Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)

The recent water contamination in Toledo, Ohio is yet another instance of the pollution that is a growing problem for Lake Erie.

Local health officials advised residents that both boiling and filtering the water were ineffective in eliminating the toxins which affected the water supply of nearly half a million residents. Toledo’s public water supply was deemed unfit to consume on Saturday and remained so until Monday when Mayor Michael Collins drank a glass of tap water in front of residents and media to signal that it was once again safe for consumption. During the shortage, football players and other athletic staff from Bowling Green State University drove 26 miles up I-75 to provide fresh water for their rivals at the University of Toledo who started practice on Sunday.

Fertilizer runoff, livestock operations, and faulty septic systems have all contributed to increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Lake Erie, which has seen seen greater levels of phosphorus compared to the other Great Lakes. However, this algae problem is not unique to the Great Lakes region.

Iowa waterways too have been contaminated with algae. Heavy rainfall in the spring and early summer led to an estimated 15 million pounds of Iowa soil being eroded away which causes runoff and other contamination in Iowa waterways. Blue green algae can produce toxins that are harmful for humans and can be deadly for animals. Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advise beach-goers to take extra precaution when swimming in Iowa lakes this time of year since algae blooms are at their peak.

EPA does not plan to regulate nitrogen levels in Iowa’s water

Gulf of Mexico. Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr

The Des Moines Register reports that the EPA has no plans to regulate nitrogen levels in Iowa’s water. Many farmers use nitrogen fertilizers; the runoff from these fertilizers hurts Iowa’s water quality, and is responsible for creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

As described in our On the Radio piece, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is an area in the gulf that is unlivable for most marine life. Some years, the dead zone exceeds 22,000 square kilometers. The dead zone is mainly caused by the nitrates and phosphates found in nitrogen fertilizers.

Only three states regulate nitrogen in rivers and streams statewide: Florida, Hawaii and Vermont. Six other states have site-specific regulations – Iowa has none.

Read the Des Moines Register’s full article here.

Learn more about nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from the EPA here.