Keeping Lake Erie Viable as a Source of Drinking Water

  On the weekend of August 3, 2014, the people of Toledo woke up to find they couldn’t use their tap water. Ohio Governor, John Kasich, declared that Lake Erie was not fit to drink, and 400,000 people scrambled to find alternative sources. The reason: cyanotoxins, produced by blue-green algae blooming profusely in Lake Erie. The measured levels of a particular cyanotoxin, microcystin, in the water supply were high enough to make people sick with diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, fever, muscle and joint pain and to potentially damage liver and skin. The “do not drink” order was in place for three days. At the end of August, the residents of Pelee Island on the Canadian side of Lake Erie were issued a similar advisory: do not drink the water, swim in the lake or eat the fish. The same reason: cyanotoxins from widespread algal blooms. For Pelee Island, the order lasted a week.

As shocking as these two stories were, the algae problem is not a new one but an old one re-emerging. Lake Erie was famously declared “dead” in the 1960s when phosphorus and nitrogen running off the land, from sewage treatment plants and even from the air fed algal blooms that choked this, the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. When Lake Erie’s mats of blue-green algae became front-page news, governments on both sides of the border acted to limit phosphates in detergents, deemed to be the major source of phosphorus. This plugged the hole in the dyke -- temporarily. Unfortunately, when the consequences of nutrient pollution became less visible, governments no longer felt the same pressure.

As a result, these pollutants have been on the rise, and phosphorus and nitrogen loadings once more threaten Lake Erie’s reliability as a source of drinking water. Similar to other Great Lakes problems, there is not one identifiable cause but death by a thousand cuts – farmers applying manure and chemical fertilizers, sometimes on frozen ground that cannot absorb them, homeowners fertilizing their lawns, leaking septic systems, storm water overflows and runoff, as well as phosphates in dishwashing detergents that overwhelm the capacity of sewage treatment plants. Collectively, these sources contribute enough nitrogen and phosphorus to feed the production of algae, a phenomenon now exacerbated by climate change warming the Great Lakes. Although scientists noted the largest algal bloom ever recorded in 2011, the drinking water shutdowns have demonstrated the urgency of protecting Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes.

And action is being contemplated. In response to the Toledo “do not drink” order, the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy held hearings this November. Suggested solutions included regulating agricultural runoff and setting a standard for cyanotoxins under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Although the U.S. responded first, ultimately both Canada and the United States share responsibility. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), signed by the two countries in 1972 and renewed several times since, was supposed to maintain the integrity of the lakes. Its first goal is “providing a source of safe, high quality drinking water,” and in the most recent version, both countries have committed to developing binational phosphorus reduction plans in addition to domestic action plans. Annex 4, Nutrients promises limits on laundry and dishwashing detergents, better controls on farm run-off, and strict limits on phosphorus emissions from sewage treatment plants.

Keeping drinking water safe should be our number one priority. But the integrity of drinking water has been jeopardized by the lack of concerted and sustained effort by all levels of government over the last three decades. At one time, Ontario was a leader in the control of farm runoff. As part of its response to the drinking water deaths in Walkerton more than a decade ago, the province put in place the Nutrient Management Act limiting the amount of manure and biosolids spread on farmland and prohibiting their spread on frozen ground. However, the provincial Auditor, in her recent report, found that the Act suffers from loopholes that exempt many farms and from a lack of enforcement and inspection, all of which mean Ontario’s drinking water supplies are vulnerable to the growing threat of nutrient pollution. Nor is the history of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement reassuring. A review of previous agreements would show that past promises are outstanding, and the same promises appear with little progress between versions. Although the most recent Agreement addresses new threats from invasive species and climate change, important goals such as the virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances have been all but abandoned. Not only have governments let their commitments slide, but they have operated on the premise that a certain amount of pollution is acceptable.

In order to maintain the quality of drinking water drawn from the Great Lakes and its Basin, it is essential that governments live up to their existing agreements. In addition, governments need to adopt an overall ethic that puts prevention first in policy and in practice. Annex 4 is one of many documents that make up the GLWQA, each of which addresses isolated problems but leaves the Great Lakes vulnerable as a whole. This cataloguing of different issues as though each required unique solutions diminishes governments’ capacity to look at the lakes as a single troubled ecosystem and to reduce both nutrient and chemical loadings through more fundamental and far-reaching actions. The “do not drink” orders make it clear that the Lakes are suffering from the combined stress of a growing population and their use as a sink for our waste. Without a more comprehensive approach that addresses all pollutants at their source, the legislation and agreements that currently exist -- the GLWQA, the Canada-Ontario Agreement that articulates federal and provincial responsibilities for the Great Lakes, and Ontario’s proposed Great Lakes Protection Act – may not be enough to meet the future challenge of spreading algal blooms.

As governments and citizens, it is our collective job to stop the massive flow of nitrogen, phosphates, drugs, personal care products, pesticides and highly toxic chemicals flowing into the Great Lakes, as though the lakes have endless capacity to absorb them. The Toledo story tells us that it will only stop if we as citizens around the Great Lakes make our voices heard. Sustained public pressure is essential to forcing the governments of Canada, United States, Ontario, Ohio and the six other states bordering the Great Lakes to keep the water clean and safe enough to drink. But it is particularly important to make the mayors of Great Lakes’ cities understand the risks of business as usual because they will be on the front lines when the drinking water is deemed unsafe. This will take vigilance and considerable noise from those of us who drink the water.