National Public Radio reported this morning about the woes of Toledo, a city of 284,012 people who’ve had no drinking water for three days because of a toxin known as microcystis which comes from algea growing in Lake Erie.
The algae is a by-product of synthetic fertilizer (and animal waste) from farms and from grass-filled yards where is being spread in large quantities and then washed by rain into drinking water.
While NPR reported that Toledo is keeping a stiff upper lip, Associate Press notes that this “new” pollution problem is actually a decade in the making.
What is turning shallow Lake Erie into a soupy, green mess in the summer is the result of a failed policy of not controlling substances like chemicals used to grow food and lawns.
Farming and the obsession with green lawns have taken us back to the epidemic 1970s levels of contamination when industry pollution caused dead zones, Dr. Jeffrey Reutter of the Ohio Sea Grant, a scientist who has looked at the problem for decades, told an audience at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History Conservation Symposium in 2013.
The take aways for individuals who want to do something? Stop using synthetic fertilizers on lawns. And support local organic farms until the big agriculture businesses in Ohio and the Great Lakes clean up their act. You could also get more involved in the Clean Water activities happening around Northeast Ohio.
“There’s really two ways to control this,” Reutter said. "Either we make it colder or we control levels of phosphorous. Tell me, which do you think is easier?”
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In related news—over the weekend, the Plain Dealer editorial board weighed in on a practice known as open water disposal of the soil dredged from the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. The PD urged the Army Corps of Engineers to pursue alternatives that have come forward (and need further testing) to dumping the soil that contains toxins directly into the lake.
The lower Cuyahoga must be dredged for big tanker ships to sail bulk cargo up river. The river bottom in the Flats fills up with silty soil that runs off of land further upstream. Experts have found that land-use practices in the headwaters area of southern Cuyahoga and western Geauga counties, where new development has sprawled in recent years, is a contributor to the river’s “navigation” channel filling up and needing removal.
One of the alternatives to open water dumping—which may be contributing to the lake’s pollution problem—is cleaning the soil and using it to fill abandoned lots in Cleveland. How ironic that the solution to a water pollution problem that sprawl is contributing to is turning the soil (at great expense to dredge and clean and which should be used for farming where it belongs in the countryside) back into compost and soil that could be potentially used to farm vacant land in the city.
A more cost-effective, long-term solution would be to reform land-use practices in the Northeast Ohio region so that sprawl development over farms is taken out of the equation. It is this exact downstream problem that led to the Balanced Growth initiative which produced a body of work in 2003 that sets a path for the state of Ohio to create priority development and priority conservation zones in river corridors like the Cuyahoga and the Maumee rivers. Pilot projects in sub-watershed areas resulted, but, it may be time to ramp it up from pilot projects to river-wide agreements as seen in the Chagrin River watershed, which has been working for years to forge land-use agreements among communities up and down river.
The alternative is to keep ignoring the problem and expect that Ohio's fourth largest city (and, perhaps, one day its largest city) can no longer depend on safe drinking water in the summer.