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Harmful algal blooms cause problems in Lake Erie; drinking water customers pay the price

TomArcher MI SeaGrant Algal Bloom
Tom Archer
Michigan Sea Grant
Lake Erie turns a bright green as toxic cyanobacterial blooms across large portions of the lake's western basin.

An environmental group calculated how much Toledo residents and others pay for drinking water because of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Cyanobacterial blooms can produce toxins. So, water treatment plants have to monitor for the blooms, test the water going in and out of the plant for toxins, do additional treatment if necessary, and properly dispose of harmful algal bloom residuals.

The costs add up.

Using Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Division of Drinking and Groundwater data, and Alliance for the Great Lakes reportshows on average, people who get water from the western end of Lake Erie are charged and additional $10.48 per person each year because of the harmful algal blooms.

The bill is even higher in Toledo, amounting to $18.76.

“We found that that a family of five is going to be paying close to $100 a year extra just to deal with the portion [of their water costs] associated with harmful algal blooms,” said Tom Zimnicki, the Agriculture and Restoration Director for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

He added that's close to a day and a half of work at minimum wage just to address harmful algal blooms. That comes at a time when water affordability is increasingly becoming a concern throughout the Great Lakes Region.

In 2014, the cyanobacterial blooms became such a concern, that out of an abundance of caution, Toledo officials warned residents not to drink or touch the water. That led to runs on bottled water in the Toledo metro area and beyond.

Since then an extensive monitoring program has been set up to detect cyanobacterial blooms and several improvements have been made at the water treatment plant to ensure the water is safe if the blooms reach Toledo's water intake in Lake Erie.

The alliance is calling on the government to make sure drinking water ratepayers don’t bear the whole burden of the cost. Farm runoff is the primary source of nutrients that feed the cyanobacterial blooms.

“We know that a greater portion of the pollution is generated upstream. And so those polluters in the current system are not having to pay to address water issued in places like Toledo. That falls almost entirely on ratepayers to deal with,” Zimnicki said.

Runoff from farms in Ohio and some in Michigan ultimately end up in the western basin of Lake Erie. So far, state and federal agencies are relying on incentives for farmers and their voluntary efforts to reduce nutrient runoff.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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