Land, Lake and Tap: Challenges in Water Quality Preservation

After toxins from Lake Erie were detected in a local Ohio water treatment plant, half a million people were told not to drink the water – don’t boil it, don’t go to restaurants, and don’t brush your teeth with it. How did this happen? How do we prevent these outbreaks from happening again?

As the summer wears on and water temperatures warm up, blooms of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, begin to populate many of our favorite recreational watering holes. For many, blue-green algae is avoidable – simply stay out of the water and eventually it goes away.

In Ohio’s case, an algae bloom occurred near a water treatment plant that sends drinking water to Toledo and surrounding communities. Suddenly something often viewed as a mere nuisance becomes a threat to public health.

The science behind the blue-green algae bloom.

Blue-green algae thrives in warm, nutrient-rich (typically phosphorous and nitrogen) waters. Blue-green algae blooms are capable of producing a toxin called microcystin in high levels, which posts significant danger to humans and our favorite, furry, four-legged friends. it begins to produce dangerously high levels of a toxin called microcystin. In Lake Erie, nutrient-rich water from farmland runoff and sewage treatment plants – as well as from leaky septic tanks and stormwater drains – had streamed into the lake and fed the algae bloom that ultimately released the microcystin toxin. Unfortunately, this occurred near an intake valve for a surface water treatment plant on Lake Erie that served the well-populated city of Toledo and dozens of communities around it.

The secret to stopping it?
Changing the status quo.

How do we prevent this from happening in the future? We have to change the status quo. Too often, lake management is viewed as a simple local problem. Residents around a lake are advised to limit the use of lawn fertilizer, leave grass longer in shoreline areas, pick up grass clippings, and plant and maintain buffer strips of native plants. These actions help reduce blue-green algae blooms by limiting the nutrients that enter the lake from shoreline properties. But local solutions such as these must be complemented by more regional efforts.

Large-scale efforts to reduce nutrient loading – as in the case of Ohio where nutrient rich farmland runoff fed the algae blooms – require us to be more mindful of what we’re putting on the land. Farmers, for example, could accomplish much by following a nutrient management plan that makes the kinds of crops they plant and fertilizers they use more deliberate, in addition to best management practices that limit the amount of nutrient-rich runoff that directly enters our rivers and lakes.

Of course, changing the way we think doesn’t come easy. Changes to behavior are even more difficult. More education and outreach efforts, which can be as simple as one farmer sharing his or her story with another – in addition to scientifically sound planning – are needed to facilitate adoption of new technologies and change our attitude toward the land.

But it’s a systemic challenge.

What happened in Toledo was not a fluke. It was a high-profile instance of a systemic challenge facing not only the Great Lakes, but lakes of every size around the country. The problem lies to an extent in a great disconnect in understanding where exactly our drinking water comes from.

What goes on our land ends up in our lakes. What goes in our lakes, ultimately, can end up coming out of the kitchen faucet. The Earth’s water systems are fundamentally interconnected. The more we act on that knowledge, the healthier our lakes will be.

About the authors

Erik Bye

Erik Bye is an SEH water resource scientist with a passion for preserving, restoring and designing solutions that keep our rivers and lakes healthy. Erik is experienced in limnology, water quality monitoring and modeling software, making him well equipped to tackle a variety of water quality and stormwater issues.
Contact Erik

Jeremy Walgrave


Jeremy Walgrave is an SEH senior water resources engineer committed to helping cities and other client partners find smart, economic ways to manage their stormwater.
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