Be prepared – it’s not just a Scout motto

August 12, 2014

Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you heard about Toledo’s drinking water crisis, when an algae outbreak right over the city’s municipal water intake in Lake Erie led to dangerous levels of toxic microcystins. For two days in early August, Toledo residents were forced to scrounge and pay for the water that would normally flow at the turn of a tap.

It was a story that could have been predicted – Lake Erie’s shallow western basin has suffered from toxic algae nearly every summer for the past several years, but this was the first time that drinking water for such a large area – nearly half a million people – had been affected. And in fact, we did predict it, or something like it.

For several years, Resource Media has been working to raise the profile of toxic algae, a dangerous and costly byproduct of polluted runoff from agricultural fields and feed lots, lawns and other urban spaces, and failing septic systems. We created a website – – to showcase our reports on the nationwide scope of toxic algae outbreaks, and the different approaches that states are taking in the absence of federal guidelines and standards for microcystins in water supplies. We also manage a Twitter handle to share information about outbreaks (@toxicalgaenews).

Our work has generated decent coverage, but it took an emergency like Toledo’s to really blow off the roof. The numbers tell the story:

  • Toxic algae news clips, July 1-31, 2014: 886
  • Toxic algae news clips, August 1-11, 2014: 2553

Of the 2,553 news hits mentioning toxic algae in the first 11 days of August, all but 295 mention “Toledo.”

Unfortunately, only about half those hits – 1,349 – connect the Toledo outbreak to the number-one source of algae-spawning pollution in Lake Erie: agriculture. And just a fraction of the stories note that toxic algae is actually a national issue, causing problems far beyond Lake Erie.

So we’ve been working hard to connect the dots for reporters, bloggers, advocates and decision-makers. As part of this outreach, we helped the reporting team at ABC World News develop a national evening news story which ran on August 4; the story provides a clear sense of the national nature of the problem, how many states are affected and what’s needed to solve it. By contrast, the stories run that same night by CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News focus only on what’s happening in Lake Erie; they don’t make the connection to any other water bodies, or necessarily help people understand the role of fertilizer runoff and need for solutions.

Our work has influenced other stories as well, like this article by Tom Philpot of Mother Jones, which features our map illustrating the national scope of toxic algae outbreaks, and the Baltimore Sun’s article connecting the Toledo outbreak with currently occurring toxic algae outbreaks in Maryland lakes. And we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in engagement rates with tweets from @toxicalgaenews, with more than 8000 users viewing our posts since Toledo’s crisis began, and hundreds sharing the infographic we put out earlier this year, illustrating causes and solutions for toxic algae.

The moral of the story? Good materials, messages and platforms + national newsmaking crisis = golden opportunity to shape a story that can help lead to the right solutions.

Cat Lazaroff