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Despite bacteria blooms, Toledo water is safe to drink, “but we’re not out of the woods yet”

Sep 28, 2017

If you’ve been on social media the past 24 hours, you might have noticed photos trending of what looks like the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day.

But nobody will be dying that river for another six months, and this river isn’t in Illinois.

It’s in Ohio, and it’s called the Maumee. It runs 137 miles from Indiana and into Ohio and Lake Erie, and it’s been turned an emerald hue by a bacteria bloom.

The cyanobacteria that's causing the bloom has many Toledo residents worried to drink the water and understandably so: as they bloom, cyanobacteria produce toxins. When the toxins are concentrated enough, they can poison humans and pets and cause skin rashes.

Here are four things you need to know as of this afternoon about the water in Toledo based on our Stateside conversation with Tim Davis, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who studies the green-blue bacteria:

1.       The water’s safe to drink, at least for now.

Dr. Davis said the bloom in the Maumee River is “not necessarily tied into Toledo’s water, but the bloom in Lake Erie certainly is.”

Toledoans get their water not from the river itself, but from a basin on the western side of the lake. He also said that water treatment plants in the area are collecting and analyzing water toxicity data, aided by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in case of contamination.

“There’s daily monitoring going on at universities, federal agencies, state agencies that are all monitoring this bloom. The water treatment plants use a lot of data coming from various sources to make determinations on how they treat their water and when to increase treatment,” he said.

2.       It’s not the first and it won’t be the last.

Davis said the blooms aren’t “atypical for this time of year,” generally appearing in the lake between mid-July and early October. In fact, this year’s bloom isn’t even the largest one on record: blooms in 2011 and 2015 take that prize. So far, they haven’t poisoned the drinking water, he said.

“These blooms have been occurring for 15 years on Lake Erie, and we’ve only had a few instances where toxins have been detected in finished drinking water,” he said. “So, for the most part, our drinking water treatment plants are doing a very good job at eliminating and significantly reducing the toxins before they exit the plant.”

Davis said discounting several ecological factors that might make the process slower this year, the river could return to it's normal color as temperatures drop across the Midwest well below 15 degrees Celsius.

3.       Record-breaking temperatures are to blame.

Several factors this year have turned the Maumee River greener than ever before, Dr. Davis said, and it’s not the sheer presence of cyanobacteria as it’s always present in the lake, even in insignificant levels.

“One of the reasons we don’t see this kind of a buildup is that rivers generally flow. As the Maumee River flows out into Lake Erie, it moves that water so you never really see this buildup," he said. "Basically what’s happened is that we haven’t had a whole lot of rain, and of course there has been this record-setting heat wave that’s come through that has significantly increased the temperature of the Maumee River right around the sweet spot for algal growth.”

That's why the bloom just keeps on growing, some sources say reaching all the way up to Canada.

4.       Cutting run-off could prevent blooms like this one from happening again.

Davis says that cleaning up Lake Erie in the long-term begins with keeping fertilizer run-off levels in check. Run-off, including fertilizer run-off from yards and farmlands, can make its way into the river and its nitrogen and phosphorus-heavy makeup is the ideal nutrient source for the bacteria.

Officials like Councilman Kurt Young on Facebook Live told his constituents that the water is safe to drink, gulping down a glass straight from the tap for good measure.

“My family drinks the water. I drink the water. I want to make you safe just like I make them safe. It’s safe,” he said in the video.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson said that she's gone out to the basin where Toledo gets its water, meeting with the scientists who test it. 

“The condition and color of river water is green," she said, "but the water at the tap is safe to drink. Since I’ve been mayor in 2015, we’ve had no problems drinking the water." 

In the meantime, both councilman and mayor encourage Toledoans to continue checking the Water Quality Dashboard on the city's website for updated toxicity readings.

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