Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lake Erie Water Quality - we are killing it again

Unless you have been in hiding, you probably already have heard about the brief drinking water ban (actually it extended to the point of a don't touch the water ban) in Toledo, Ohio. Up to approximately half-a-million people were told not to drink the water, don't shower in it, don't wash dishes in it, don't let your pets play in it -  in fact - just don't get near the water at all. And boiling it isn't going to make a difference. The first tests indicating that there was a problem came Friday night. Toledo issued warning just after midnight Saturday, leading the governor to declare a state of emergency. The state began delivering water to the Toledo area Saturday afternoon. The ban was lifted Monday morning (August 4th). They were pretty lucky - it would be hard to provide bottled water for that many people for any sustained period of time.

The really sad part of this news, is that it isn't really news at all. Scientists have been warning us about this problem for years. Algal blooms have gotten increasingly bad in Lake Erie over the past few years and with the effects of climate change things are only going to get worse. 

The above picture, from the New York Times, is of Lake Erie in 2011. That year the algal bloom  covered one sixth of the lake, expanded the dead zone (i.e. anoxic or oxygen free zone) on the lake bottom, reduced fish populations and fouled beaches.

NASA image of the 2011 bloom - this isn't at its worst either

Compare that to this image of Lake Erie taken a couple of days ago ...

Algae-infested water from Lake Erie on Monday washed up onshore at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo. Credit Joshua Lott for The New York Times

And this satellite image from August 3rd ...
Unfortunately the NOAA Lake Erie MODIS Satellite Image for 08-03-2014 18:41GMT s pretty cruddy but you can still clearly see the algae bloom. The rest of the days have tons of cloud cover.

This year, as I listened to the news play chirpy reports about how the Toledo population was pulling together and making jokes ("my child is so spoiled they only bathe in bottled water"), the thing that really attracted my attention was the unstated implication that these algae blooms are somehow the new normal. 

Really they are the result of nutrient rich run-off from agriculture and sewage treatment plant effluent. The phosphorus from these sources is food for a poisonous cyanobacteria called Microcystis aeruginosa, that produce the toxin microcystin. Microcystins are hepatotoxins (liver toxins), causing liver damage, diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as skin, eye and throat irritation. I have seen no reports of human deaths due to exposure, but pets and livestock have died after drinking contaminated water. 

Cyanobacterial blooms, or blue-green algae blooms, are already harmful because they cause oxygen depletion of the water, creating dead zones. The addition of Microcystis toxin just exacerbates the problem. And basically, they are our fault. Humans are providing the nitrates and phosphates that cause these blooms.

It turns out that in this instance, Toledo was a victim of bad luck. A bloom of toxic algae formed miles offshore directly over the city’s water-intake pipe in Lake Erie.

Scientists have been calling for action for years now. Perhaps this time people will listen, but I am not holding my breath.

I will close with these panels from Grist (at ...

You should read the whole thing.

 More to the story at Grist ... 

We are well on our way to losing Lake Erie again. 


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