Article courtesy of The Daily Journal Staff | September 12, 2014 | The Daily Journal | Shared as educational material
Algae that turned Lake Erie green and produced toxins that fouled the tap water for 400,000 people in the Toledo area are becoming a big headache for those who keep drinking water safe even far beyond the Great Lakes.
Conditions have to be just right for harmful algal blooms. The water needs a large dose of nutrients feeding the algae, such as phosphorus from farm fertilizers, livestock manure and sewage overflows. Heavy rainstorms washing pollutants into the water and warm weather help the algae grow, too.
Farmers and landowners in 27 Ohio counties are being encouraged to participate in a new conservation program that will help to improve water quality in Lake Erie and 5,000 miles of streams by reducing nutrient runoff.
The Ohio legislature and Gov. John R. Kasich have enacted the Lake Erie Nutrient Reduction Program to will assist farmers in using “best management practices” methods and systems to keep nutrients on fields, improve water quality and combat harmful algal blooms.
The program will be supervised locally soil and water conservation districts, working with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which will make $1.25 million will be available to reduce farm runoff. The DNR already has helped farmers implement best management practices on more than 40,000 acres in the Lake Erie watershed.
“Farmers have shown us they’re serious about improving Lake Erie,” said DNR Director James Zehringer.
The new program is voluntary and reimburses farmers to plant cover crops or install drainage management devices such as controlled drainage structures or blind tile inlets.
In addition to reducing runoff of nutrients and pesticides the practices will allow farmers to manage and maintain the water from their fields after harvest and during the growing season, ultimately enhancing production.
Scientists say research suggests that climate change and the increasing amount phosphorus may be why there have been more harmful algae occurrences documented in recent decades.
But with no federal standards on safe levels for drinking algae-tainted water and no guidelines for treating or testing it either, water quality engineers sometimes look for solutions the same way school kids do their homework.
“We are Googling for answers,” said Kelly Frey, who oversees a municipal system in Ohio that draws drinking water from the lake. “We go home and spend our nights on the Internet trying to find how other places manage it.”
The contamination left about 400,000 people in parts of northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan without clean tap water for two days in August.
Spurred by the water emergency, that saw thousands lining up for water for two days in early August, a growing chorus is calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a national standard for allowable amounts of microcystin, the toxin that contaminated Toledo’s water.
Ohio, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida and Oklahoma have set their own drinking water standards for microcystin, which can cause headaches or vomiting when swallowed and can be fatal to dogs and livestock. Most of those states rely on a measurement suggested by the World Health Organization.