Great Lakes Drinking Water Fouled By Toxic Algae

Lake Erie_Algae_CodiKozacek_8262015_02
Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

OAK HARBOR, Ohio — On September 4, 2013, Henry Biggert, the superintendent of the Carroll Water and Sewer District, near Toledo, Ohio, got the first clue that he could have a public health crisis on his hands. An analysis of water samples taken from Lake Erie, the district’s only water source, showed that levels of a toxin released by algal blooms had spiked.

In five years of voluntarily testing for the toxin, Biggert and his staff had never seen anything like it. So they followed protocol and retested the water early the next morning. Unable to process the sample at their own facility, they sent it to another plant nearby and waited.

At 3 p.m. Biggert received the second set of results. They were alarming. Toxin levels in Lake Erie were greater than 50 parts per billion. Levels of the toxin in Carroll Township’s treated drinking water were 3.8 parts per billion—nearly four times the safety limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

Within two hours, Biggert decided to act. He shut down the Carroll Township treatment plant and simultaneously alerted the community’s 2,000 residents not to drink the water. If they did, they might get very sick—become nauseous, vomit, and suffer liver damage.

“I had major concerns with [the decision], but I really didn’t feel I had a choice,” Biggert told Circle of Blue, describing how he and his staff rushed to get the word out to area residents, notifying TV stations in Toledo as well as local newspapers and radio stations. They activated Ottawa County’s reverse emergency system, calling all the households that signed up to be warned of public dangers.

Biggert also opened an emergency connection with the Ottawa County Regional Water Plant, which began pumping safe water to residents that evening. Biggert and his staff stayed at the Carroll water plant until midnight, flushing the system, and returned at 4 a.m. the next day to test for the toxin.

“We didn’t really know what we were dealing with,” Biggert said. “We wanted to be very safe and conservative.”

“It was a crazy day, it was a crazy week,” he added. “But no one got hurt, so I guess it was all worth it.”

The September incident put Carroll Township in the unenviable position of being the first Great Lakes community to directly contend with the health risks associated with algae. Algal blooms are now ubiquitous in lakes and oceans around the world, risking human health, and sucking up so much oxygen they suffocate fish and invertebrates. Dangerous blooms have been documented from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.