They live in the world’s most freshwater-rich area and not a drop was safe to drink.

From Aug. 2 to Aug. 4, almost half-a-million Lake Erie citizens were warned: Do not drink the water, do not brush your teeth or prepare food with it, and do not give it to your pets. Health officials also advised that children and people with weak immune systems not use the water to bathe.

HABs should be reminders of the hidden economic costs of pollution, including the need for more water treatment and lost income from fishing , recreation, and tourism.

The water treatment plant serving Toledo, Ohio, and some Michigan communities issued this ban when dangerous levels of a toxin produced by a Lake Erie harmful algae bloom contaminated their water supply. It is not the first and probably won’t be the last. In September 2013, a water treatment plant in Carroll Township, Ohio, issued a similar ban.

In freshwater, the majority of HABs are caused by cyanobacteria (also called blue-green algae). Depending on the exposure and the type of toxin, health effects can include gastrointestinal, neurological, dermal and respiratory symptoms and even death. Cyanobacterial toxins (cyanotoxins) are implicated in human and animal illness and death in more than 50 countries worldwide, including at least 35 U.S. States.

Beyond the health problems, HABs wreak havoc on marine ecosystems and the communities that rely on commercial and sport fishing, boating and other recreation and tourism. At stake are tens of billions in lost revenue and millions more in additional monitoring, and treatment for affected drinking water. But the phosphorus and nitrogen that feed the blooms, which produce the toxins that contaminate the water, don’t originate at the coast. They begin their journey to Lake Erie from land as far away as Fort Wayne, Ind. Water drains from land in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario.

Water problems don’t begin in Lake Erie. Pollutants come from cities as far away as Fort Wayne Ind., and from the land in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and the Canadian Provice of Ontario. (Green area on map.)

Rain and snowmelt transport soil particles, fertilizers, pesticides, raw sewage and other pollutants from homes, farms, lawns, roads, roofs and parking lots into streams and tributaries, which deposit them in Lake Erie. Storms then carry them further into the lake. This is just one example of why Toledo and any of the communities or states in the Lake Erie watershed cannot fix water pollution problems on their own — and why voluntary programs don’t work.

These communities and problems are interconnected by water, which does not recognize their political boundaries. Toledo can’t force Fort Wayne and other communities in Indiana or Ohio, Michigan and other states that contribute to the problem to stop polluting.

However, the 1972 federal Clean Water Act proved that problems like this, ones that cross municipal and state borders, can be solved. When Lake Erie was declared “dead,” the federal government created a partnership between the states. It set wastewater benchmarks and a range of pollution control programs that held each state to the same standards, and the lake recovered.

Yet this law cannot address the current problems because it only regulates point sources of pollution that can clearly be measured, such as pollution created by power plants. It did not establish a limit for manure or fertilizers or pesticides that can wash off lawns or farms, (many of which are now factory farms).

Doesn’t it make sense to issue standards for these and other nonpoint pollutants to insure current problems will also be solved?

ANNA Mc CARTNEY, a communications and education specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, can be reached by e-mail at axm40@psu.edu.

Issue Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Main Office: Tom Ridge Environmental Center 301 Peninsula Dr., Suite 3 Erie, PA 16505 814-217-9011