Being able to turn on your tap to get a drink of water used to be a given, but access to water is more and more often becoming a hit or miss right in the United States. Recently Detroit, Mich., residents found the city government turning off their tap water in an attempt to force them to pay overdue water bills. Now, a water crisis has just ended in Toledo, Ohio, where the city’s water has finally been ruled safe to use after a multi-day prohibition.
The ban on drinking water in Toledo and the surrounding area was a result of a major toxic algae bloom, coming from Lake Erie. The bloom is a cyanobacteria, which means that the water is hazardous to drink, even if it is boiled, which is a common method for dealing with unsafe water. “There are a few reasons algae blooms form, but it’s primarily caused by runoff from farm fertilizers,” reports Time magazine. “In Toledo’s case, the phosphorus and nitrogen from these fertilizers runs into the Maumee River, which drains right into the Maumee Bay of Lake Erie, where Toledo is located. This spurs the growth of the blooms. The summer heat has likely also played a role in this particular algae bloom’s growth.”
The Toledo water crisis ended in just a few days, primarily because wind blew the algae bloom further away from the intake for the drinking water system, according to Time. Technically, then, the bloom could move back into place, making the water undrinkable once again, especially since there is absolutely no regulation on the farm runoff that created it in the first place.
In comparison to the West Virginia water crisis at the beginning of 2014, Toledo’s experience was hardly a blip on the radar. In January, hundreds of thousands of residents were left without any water after 5000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or Crude MCHM, was spilled into the water supply, leaving the water unusable for anything but “flushing toilets and fighting fires.” For weeks, pregnant women were told to avoid drinking the water even as the levels began to decline, and residents were allowed to slowly integrate tap water back into their lives, though the licorice smell of contamination still lingered.
But while in Toledo things may seem better, authorities note that the problems could return. “There is a systemic challenge that we face out here on the Great Lakes that is actually much bigger than this one crisis,” Collin O’Mara of the National Wildlife Federation told NBC News. “Unfortunately, this crisis could just be the tip of the iceberg unless we begin to address it.” Whereas the West Virginia water crisis could be cleaned up and dealt with, since the Toledo water crisis is caused by environmental agents, as well as industry farmers, the area will be constantly on the precipice of another incident.
The question becomes, at what point does the state decide that regulation that will anger their local farmers is outweighed by the negative effects that not acting has on the community at large? With nearly 100 people hospitalized, the National Guard called in to bring additional water and distribute it, is this finally enough impetus for the vastly conservative, anti-regulation Ohio legislature to step in and make changes? One local writer says yes, and that the tipping point is the economic impact that not regulating will have on the state.
“In northwest Ohio this weekend, the water crisis shut down the popular Toledo Zoo, as well as restaurants and businesses across town. Meanwhile, the lovely Lake Erie beach at Maumee Bay State Park continues under a public health advisory warning — issued 10 days before the drinking-water ban — which cautions swimmers to stay out of the water because of high levels of algal toxins,” writes the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Susan Glaser. “Left uncorrected, this problem could affect popular lakefront attractions from Cedar Point to Put-in-Bay to Geneva-on-the-Lake. Who wants to go swimming or boating or even walking along a lake that is clogged with thick, poisonous algae?”
If the state is as pro-business as it claims, it will look at regulation, knowing that it benefits all businesses, not just the agricultural industry. After all, if the physical well-being of the state isn’t enough of a reason for the legislature to act, maybe the economic health of Ohio will be.
Photo credit: Thinkstock