INTRO: Five days after the water crisis in Toledo, residents are drinking again. But this will be a long war against ourselves. People are polluting the Great Lakes. And people can stop it. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports from Ohio’s 4th largest city.
The mayor of Toledo and his staff said they hadn’t slept in three days. Tests on the drinking water for a half million people showed danger. The mayor said don’t drink the water. So did his spokesperson Lisa Ward.
“It’s a concern to us and any other city on a body of water that’s being impacted by the harmful algae blooms.”
Several miles offshore in Lake Erie, a pipe pulls water to the city. It’s tested 24 hours a day. So much algae is growing in the water that carbon has to be added to soak it up. A researcher poured a sample of Lake Erie water into a dinner glass. That picture on the internet scared the public. But Lisa Ward urges calm.
“The green water in the glass came from where the actual intake pipe is way out in the lake. And that’s what the toxic algae blooms look like. That’s the green gooey stuff. When it comes into our water system they test it there and that helps them determine how much chemicals they have to put in the water to be able to get rid of it. So we didn’t have any green water. Our water was crystal clear the whole time.”
“But it might look like that somewhere at the beginning of the pipe,” McCarus asked.
“Yes,” said Ward. “But by the time it gets to us. No green water.”
Toledo public works officer Rod Kwiatkowski told Federal Emergency Management officials they could load their crates of drinking water back up and leave town. That was Monday. But before that he panicked like everyone else.
“My neighbor bought water in Taylor, Michigan. So that goes to show you when panic sets in. I happened to be in Columbus Saturday. I’m walking around the grocery store. I bought ten cases of water and they said ‘oh you’re from Toledo.”
Still Monday, a couple guys walked into city hall asking for water.
“I can’t even take a drink out of the water fountain,” said a man in dreadlocks in his twenties. “Whoever the mayor is he need to be in Mexico or something somewhere. He need to be in a third world country. I’m about to pass out right now. Not now but right now. I might faint right now. They still trying to take people down for jay walking and petty thefts. These police need to be passing out water. They still trying to arrest people and shit.”
That guy walked across the street and stopped traffic where Mike Jones, 29, was in his car.
“Yeah they fixed the problem. They say it’s fixed but you know. We’ve probably been drinking that water forever and they just now saying something about it. It was probably too bad to the point where they had to say something. They didn’t get the problem fixed in two days.”
News crews and tourists from hot southern states appeared at Maumee Bay State Park. It’s a pleasant beach if you accept the cracked zebra mussel shells and green slime in the water as far as you can see. Mary Beth McCarty is a third grade teacher from Kansas City, Kansas. She dipped a water bottle into the bay. It was filled with green.
“I don’t know. How does that happen? I don’t know what you tell third graders. Then you have to take it a bit farther and study why this happens. What is algae? To take your drinking water from this is a little scary. It looks like pea soup.”
Christine Mayer is an ecology professor at University of Toledo. She does research right at the state park though I spoke with her by phone. She says scientists have been warning about phosphorous coming from farms and sewage plants for years.
“The watershed of the Maumee River is the largest single watershed in the Great Lakes. It’s Indiana and Ohio. That’s a lot added area and a lot of added agriculture.”
Professor Mayer says yes the treatment process works. But it’s expensive when you need to turn pea soup into clear water. And there’s more chance for mistakes. Mayer says the country needs laws to control fertilizer.
“We need agriculture. So it’s not beat up on the farmers. But think about it. We don’t have traffic suggestions. We have laws. And there are no laws about nutrient effluent. How can you yell at people for not following rules that don’t exist?”
A local newspaper applauds the city, saying Toledo is holding itself to the high standard of the United Nations which is above that of the the U.S. Government. It might become the model for environmental disaster preparedness. Cleveland had the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. That fueled the environmental movement and forced President Richard Nixon into creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Detroit drinks from Lake Huron. Chicago drinks from Lake Michigan. And Toronto drinks from Ontario. They’ve all got to worry and work together now or they could be next.