Water, water everywhere … The fouling of Toledo’s water supply is an environmental game changer

It's one of those events when the economic, political and social costs of pollution hit home hard

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One thing I keep hearing from sources while covering Toledo’s algae-induced water crisis is this: It’s a game changer.

It has instantly made the environment a key issue in Ohio’s 2014 gubernatorial race between Republican incumbent John Kasich and Democratic challenger Ed Fitzgerald.

It will, no doubt, amplify the debate over whether the future of Lake Erie should be reconsidered by a conservative majority in the Ohio General Assembly which, to date, has been bending over backward to keep strict — but difficult-to-enforce — regulations from being imposed on the agricultural industry to control farm runoff, as opposed to more voluntary incentives.

It raises new questions about the impact of manure from concentrated animal feeding operations.

It also raises questions about why Congress has slashed funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which is used to finance many of the low-interest loans municipalities need to pay for sewer projects aimed at making a meaningful dent in reducing spills after almost every thunderstorm.

Toledo is making headway with its $521 million expansion project, intended to phase out sewage spills except for one or two significant storms a year when it’s finished in 2020. But c’mon, it’s 2014 and billions of gallons of raw human waste are being flushed down toilets across the Great Lakes region that never make it to a sewage treatment plant.

This water crisis has been an eye-opener for many about the hidden financial costs of pollution, from additional spending for the National Guard to city employees.

You think it’s just a bunch of fishing boat captains now worried about being thrown out of work when there’s a major algae bloom? Or officials at Cedar Point and vacationers at lakefront cottages worried about unsightly water?

Wait and see how the restaurant association reacts to being shut down during one of its busiest weeks of the summer. Or, as Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes said, how people trying to scrape together a living working at them — dishwashers and busboys, for example — react. Only a few years ago, Toledo was ranked America’s eighth most-impoverished city with one of every four residents living below the poverty line.

No longer will eyes roll when someone suggests a metro area of 500,000 people in the world’s most water-blessed region could suddenly find themselves scrambling for fresh drinking water because of pollution. The unthinkable has happened. And this event is a game changer for the Great Lakes region because it could happen again.

“Maybe rattling the cage is a good thing,” Bill Strable, superintendent of pumping stations at Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant told me. “You don’t realize how much we rely on water until you don’t have it.”

The thing is, the threat from toxic microcystis algae and its chief toxin, microcystin, is hardly new. It has appeared almost annually every summer since 1995, following a 20-year disappearance.

I still remember getting out on a boat and seeing it back in ’95 with former Ohio State University limnologist (a fancy word for lake scientist) David Culver. Covering each subsequent bloom has been like an annual rite of summer for me, with dire warnings put out for people who largely ignored or made fun of them.

In the early days, people didn’t take the algae seriously. My stories got picked up by radio jocks who poked fun at the thought of killer algae, even though the stuff did kill 75 people at a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1995 when an on-site water treatment system failed.

That triggered a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research project headed by another Ohio algae researcher, Wayne Carmichael of Wright State University. Mr. Culver and Mr. Carmichael ended up testifying before Congress about the threat toxic algae poses to the Great Lakes, which holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

People either never knew or forgot about it.

I’m starting to appreciate more how one of my buddies in the Society of Environmental Journalists felt after Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. In his groundbreaking 2002 series for the New Orleans Times-Picayune called “Washing Away,” Mark Schleifstein, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author, forecast in eerie detail what could happen to New Orleans if the levees failed.

To Mark — one of the nation’s best environmental writers — the story was not just about climate change but more about accountability and the failure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build levees as robust as New Orleans needed. He has described the internal debate over his 2002 series at conferences and speaking engagements, describing how a senior editor tried to stop it because he viewed it as “just more of Schleifstein’s disaster porn.”

Certainly we’re all about to learn some lessons from what happened in Toledo. It’s a game changer.

Tom Henry, a staff writer for The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, the sister newspaper of the Post-Gazette, writes a blog on Great Lakes issues called the Ripple Effect, in which this first appeared (thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079).

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