Toxic algae crisis isn’t over for Lake Erie or the nation

August 5, 2014

Toledo drinking water ban should be a warning to other cities

After a weekend of scrambling to find bottled water for drinking, cooking and other household uses, residents of northwestern Ohio and southwestern Michigan were told Monday that their tapwater is again safe to drink. But for how long?

Toxic algae outbreaks in Lake Erie are a recurring problem, swamping the lake’s shallow western basin with green slime every summer as the weather warms and rainfall flushes pollution from farms, feedlots, lawns and septic systems into streams and rivers. (Check out our infographic to see how polluted runoff leads to toxic algae: And Lake Erie is far from the only U.S. water body that suffers from this dangerous issue.

Nearly three-quarters of the states that responded to our 2014 Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) State Survey described toxic algae outbreaks as either a “somewhat serious” or a “very serious” problem. Yet few states have programs dedicated to monitoring or reporting on these outbreaks. A majority of states (56%) rely, at least in part, on local municipalities and the public to call in suspected outbreaks and for many states (31%), this is the only method by which they gather information on toxic algae problems. Yet only nine states reported operating a HAB hotline that members of the public could call to report a suspected outbreak.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are currently “no U.S. federal guidelines, water quality criteria and standards, or regulations concerning the management of harmful algal blooms in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) or in ambient waters under the Clean Water Act (CWA).”

And despite the widespread nature of the problem, no federal agency currently tracks lake closures or health warnings nationally. So in 2013, Resource Media created the first national online map showing incidents of toxic algae outbreaks, based on state reports made available on the web or through email alerts. We also set up @toxicalgaenews on Twitter as a way of quickly sharing news of toxic algae outbreaks around the country.

As we highlighted in our 2013 report, the inconsistent nature of state responses to toxic algae can make it difficult or impossible for the public to know whether their local waters are safe to drink, swim, fish or boat.

The recently passed amendments to the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 will provide more funding for research, but do not require the development of national tracking or monitoring. Lake Erie’s neighbors may benefit from a required assessment of the causes, consequences, and approaches to reduce toxic algae outbreaks in the Great Lakes, and a plan for reducing and controlling such outbreaks. But unless the plan directly addresses the number one source of phosphorus pollution in the western Lake Erie basin – agricultural runoff – local residents are likely to face more drinking water restrictions in the months and years to come.


Cat Lazaroff