Earth News Journal 48: Algae Bloom Water Scare

A recent water scare in northern Ohio has left many ecologists concerned about toxic algae blooms and their lingering aftereffects in highly-accessible freshwater zones.

The town of Toledo in northwest Ohio experienced a complete tap water ban – no drinking, cooking, or bathing with tap water was encouraged – for an entire weekend, in response to reports of possible contamination from the pervasive toxic algae bloom expanding on the surface of nearby Lake Erie.

This shallow-watered member of the Great Lakes has seen problematic algae scares in the past, particularly in the late 20th century, and the likelihood of future run-ins with toxic water tests is only expected to increase with climate changes on the horizon.

These harmful algae blooms are already becoming a more frequent hazard in coastal oceans and freshwater communities across the country; Florida suffered a record number of manatees killed from a toxic algae bloom early last year, while a record number of marine mammals were sent to a California rehabilitation center after coming in contact with a toxic bloom in early 2014. Warm temperatures and a concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients spawn the growth of the algae and bacteria responsible for blooms.

As climate changes have provoked warmer temperatures and global warming has intensified tropical storms and their associated terrestrial runoff, toxic algae blooms are becoming more of a public issue. Thousands of people – half a million in Toledo last weekend – then become potential vessels for these toxic-feeding bacteria, often without flashing danger signs or any other cautionary cues.

Because of Lake Erie’s shallow depths, a higher concentration of fertilizer runoff contributes to a more frequent appearance of toxic blooms in the Ohio-bordered freshwater source, not to mention the impact of a relatively quick frozen thaw on the average surface water temperature, a number which has “rebounded to within 1.68 degrees of the average of the last ten years,” Eric Anderson of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory noted.

Toxic-laden algae blooms can contaminate local drinking water sources after strong winds submerge the bacteria in these blooms to depths at which intake pipes transport the water to local municipalities. Though not all algae blooms are considered toxic, the rate at which blooms appear toxic has increased with climate changes, according to Timothy Davis, another member of the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Davis admits, “It doesn’t take very long for aquatic systems like Lake Erie to get thrown off balance. But it will take patience and long-term management to get the lake healthy again.”

Reflection

This story captured my attention just by the sheer closeness of the location to my home in central Ohio and the relative impact that the toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie may have in my life. Toxins hidden in sources of drinking water is an unnerving thought. How often do we use our sink water for cleaning dishes or for boiling a cup of coffee, and what might the consequences be should this water be toxin-laden? How might contaminated water affect our health and body, were we to bathe in a toxic-misted shower? Because these microorganisms dwell in the biological world without our detection, their potential for impact becomes of greater concern if known sources of freshwater are continually found guilty of harboring these health-fugitives. I’ve seen pictures of Lake Erie oozing its algae blooms, like a green pus atop the lake’s surface – not pretty. And definitely not the kind of lake I would want my tap water to come from, regardless of the filtration techniques. In my opinion, there’s only so much filth that should be permissible in water for it to be repurposed for drinking – especially if that filth is coming partially from an excess of man-assisted nutrients, like the fertilizers phosphorus and nitrogen. The farmer’s unabated approach to spraying his crops with a proliferation of pesticides was bound to appear somewhere else along the web of life – and that place is now in his morning glass of water. 

Lee, Jane J. “Driven by Climate Change, Algae Blooms Behind Ohio Water Scare Are New Normal.” National Geographic. N.p., 4 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

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