The liquid in the glass looked like a smoothie: Olive green, with almost no light passing through it. But it wasn’t something you’d buy at a coffee place; it was drinking water straight from the Lake Erie source for Toledo, Ohio’s fourth-largest city. For three straight days early this month, Toledo’s mayor advised the area’s residents, more than 400,000 people, not to use the water for drinking, bathing or cooking because a toxin had been found in the supply.
Police were called in to help order as residents emptied store shelves of water, and water distribution sites were opened throughout the area. Governor John Kasich declared a state of emergency, and the Ohio National Guard began providing tens of thousands of gallons of water, NBC News reported.
The advisory was put in place after tests at a treatment plant showed above-standard readings for microsystin, which can cause liver problems, diarrhea and vomiting. Researchers said that sewage from treatment plants and fertilizer from farms streamed into the lake, triggering an algae bloom near an intake valve that sends water to Toledo and more than a dozen surrounding communities.
We take access to water for granted. Walk a few steps in the house or apartment where you live, turn the tap, and there’s the water you need to drink, prepare spaghetti for dinner or take a shower. You can imagine how your daily life, and that of everyone else in your community, would be disrupted if our water supply became contaminated. You don’t have to imagine, though; you can just look at what happened in Toledo. Or in Charleston, W.Va.; in January, a coal-processing chemical leaked from a ruptured storage tank into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply for about 300,000 people in and around that state’s capital.
While a Journal Times report last week indicated that the Racine-area water supply is well-regulated — the nuisance species of algae that sometimes muck up the Racine shoreline waters of Lake Michigan shoreline are not toxic, according to Julie Kinzelman, laboratory director for the Racine Health Department — other Wisconsin communities do have the vulnerability of algae contaminating the water supply, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this week.
Today, one quarter of more than 700 water bodies that fail to meet water quality standards do so because of high levels of phosphorus, which is found in sewage, agriculture and runoff from lawns, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Phosphorus is a nutrient of fertilizer and comes from sources ranging from suburban yards to manure from farm fields.
Many types of algae are polluting Wisconsin waters, but experts say blue-green algae — the kind which contaminated the supply in Toledo — is most troubling. Last month, the DNR said blue-green algae containing microcystin began turning up in Lake Winnebago. The lake provides drinking water for Appleton, Neenah, Menasha and Oshkosh.
The discovery of algae containing toxins has increased in the past decade on the lake, according to an ongoing water-quality testing study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. So far, the four water systems on Lake Winnebago have fended off the toxins, according to state officials.
In Green Bay, they’re again on the lookout for “dead zones” in the bay, spots in the bay which lack oxygen as a result of algae blooms. Last summer, the zone started about 8 miles northeast of the city and extended for more than 30 miles. The source of the problem? Agricultural and industrial runoff from the Fox River, which flows into the bay. Erin Wilcox, a water resources specialist with the Green Bay sewerage district, said to the Journal Sentinel that “Green Bay is a great sink for what comes out of the Fox River.”
In late 2010, Wisconsin became one of the first states in the country to approve standards to reduce phosphorus pollution. But Republican-led state lawmakers rewrote the law earlier this year after some municipalities and businesses complained about the cost of complying with the reductions. This year’s changes allow up to 20 years to comply.
There’s a legitimate case to be made against over-regulation, many situations in which rules for homeowners or businesses become so onerous that it becomes too costly to live or do business in a particular community.
But regulations safeguarding water cannot be subject to complaints of “it’s too expensive to comply.” Water is not a profit/loss issue or a standard-of-living issue, it’s a necessity of life.
The Legislature should reconsider its weakening of the state’s phosphorus standard and restore the protections to Wisconsin’s sources of drinking water. We don’t want one of our cities to become the next Toledo, or the next Charleston.