By Eelisa Jones
A recent outbreak of algae-related bacteria in the Toledo, OH drinking water and the ongoing drought in our Western states have re-stimulated national discussion about water management and quality control.
Bacterial Contamination in Toledo
From Sat Aug 2nd through Mon Aug 4th, municipal officials in Toledo, OH and several South-East Michigan communities issued an advisory that warned users that their public water may be contaminated with the toxin myocrocystin – a biproduct of blue-green algae.
The Southwestern tip of Lake Erie had begun to develop what is predicted to be its fourth-largest blue-green algal bloom since 2002.
The advisory told residents to avoid drinking, cooking with, or bathing in the water produced from area taps and faucets. Myocrocystin poisoning is known to cause respiratory, skin, stomach, and liver complications.
It cannot be neutralized through boiling. Over the weekend, about 500,000 Toledo residents and 30,000 Michigan residents took to the streets in search of commercial water.
The Ohio National Guard delivered 30,000 gallons of bottled water to Toledo City.
Community volunteers in the affected municipalities organized bottled water dispensaries throughout the area.
Scientists have linked high levels of myocrocystin with the increasing presence of agricultural biproduct like manure and chemical fertilizer.
A number of municipal officials have singled out large agribusiness as a major cause of the outbreak.
These phosphorous- and nitrogen-rich contaminants are key nutrients for algae growth.
Blue-green algal blooms are also associated with leaking septic tanks and intentional bypassing of sewage treatment plants.
Warm summers and strong winds can cause large algal blooms (and their associated toxins) to collect along shorelines.
In the case of Toledo and surrounding areas, this year’s weather conditions led massive algal blooms to accumulate near the region’s Lake Erie intake systems.
Lake Erie has experienced abnormally large algal blooms in 2002 and 2011. In 2011, algal bloom covered roughly 20 percent of Erie’s surface.
Within about 48-hours of identifying the contamination, the Mayor D. Michael Collins, announced that the employees of Toledo’s Division of Water Treatment had successfully neutralized the myocrocystin influx by using ozone-based disinfection and encouraging residents to flush their system of previously siphoned water.
Although utilities in Southeast Michigan and Northern Ohio have been able to resolve this latest wave of myocrocystin, the bacteria will remain a threat until the end of the algae life cycle this fall.
In a Chicago Tribune article published Aug 3rd , UW-Milwaukee professor of Freshwater Sciences, Val Klump, stated that Lake Michigan does not have the necessary conditions to create the levels of myocrocystin found along Southwestern Lake Erie.
One important difference between Lakes Michigan and Erie is that of depth. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes. Erie’s shallowness allows greater heat penetration and algae persistence, making it susceptible to larger algal blooms than those found in its sister lakes.
Historical Drought in Western States
Every state West of the Mississippi River has struggled with drought or drought-like conditions for the past 13 years.
The scientific community refers to droughts that last more then two decades as “megadroughts.” Data collected from the region’s tree-ring patterns suggests that the area has experienced a number of megadroughts lasting from 28 to 200 years over the last thousand years.
A number of scientist at the 2013 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting suggested that Western U.S. states are on their way to a new 21st century megadrought. Researchers published a 2014 article in the Science journal which announced that this most recent drought has caused much of the Western land mass to rise an average of 0.16 inches.
While rainfall stagnates, surface water continues to shrink at an alarming rate. One major source of water for several Western states – the Colordo River Basin – has lost 15.6 cubic miles of water in the last 10 years.
California remains one Western state that is most affected by the current drought.
California issued it’s first state-wide emergency drought proclamation to its 38.3 million residents in 2007-2009.
In a 2010 report, Mark Cowin – Director of the California Department of Water Resources – wrote that without increased sustainability efforts, California would remain at risk for future state-wide droughts.
Three years later, California began the most severe drought years in its state history.
Some areas of Central Valley have already lost their ability to sustain water demand for its residents. This week, three hundred people in East Porterville, CA no longer have access to local water because it’s well has run dry.
Municipal officials issued over 15 thousand gallons of bottled drinking water to affected households and imported 25 thousand gallons of water for household use.
The California Department of Water Resources plans to create two water diversion tunnels from the Delta to alleviate regional struggles in supplying water to its residents.
Plans for the diversions have been in the works for about seven years.
The department estimates that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will cost about $25 billion.