If you hit the grocery stores in the Toledo area a couple weeks ago, hoping to pick up some bottled water, you were out of luck.
Several stores completely sold out, thanks to rumors that the city would soon be issuing another “do not drink” advisory for tap water. It didn’t.
But water pollution in the Maumee River and western Lake Erie is creating harmful blooms so large, you can literally see them from space.
And Toledo residents can see them anytime they walk downtown by the river or head to the lakefront.
Trying to quell the rumors
If you’re city council member Kurt Young, that means you take to Facebook Live, showing yourself drinking the water.
“Right here is the tap,” he says, walking over to the sink in his law office. “I’m running some wonderful Toledo water here. Ok? There you go, right from the tap. And again,” he adds, taking two big gulps of the water, “it’s clean. It’s safe.”
Three years ago, toxic blooms in Lake Erie got so bad, some 400,000 people in the Toledo area (which includes several communities in southeast Michigan) couldn’t drink or bathe in their tap water for almost three days.
Those blooms, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve been around Lake Erie the last several summers, look slimy and green. They’re created when nutrients from fertilizer, wastewater, and manure run off the land and into the waterways.
And after Toledo’s 2014 water crisis, some people’s trust never came back.
Some sticking to bottled water, just in case
Ask Teri Thomas how she feels about her tap water, and she cracks up. “I avoid it at all costs!” she laughs, describing how she and her pets only drink bottled water now.
Marilyn Sheck and her husband are in the same boat. Every summer, they see the water turn green, and they buy cases of bottled water, trying to avoid tap as much as their budget allows.
“I do use it for laundry,” Sheck says. “And we do shower. And I do cook with it reluctantly, but it’s too expensive to cook with [bottled water].”
For Haley Gardner, an ESL teacher with an autoimmune disease, she says she’s trying to take extra precautions because of her compromised immune system.
“I thought, I’d rather be safe than sorry. I mean, not that the government is terrible, but there’s so many instances, just looking at Flint, of people saying that the water is fine and people taking them at their word. But then it turns out that the water isn’t fine.”
It’s not a perfect solution, they all say. The cost of bottled water is a pain, and they wince about the environmental toll.
But Gardner says it feels like the right thing for now.
“Actually, I was listening to Michigan Radio, it was an interview with Jack Lessenberry. He was talking about the situation, and I forget the man’s name, but the journalist who originally broke the story back in 2014, he said he and his family aren’t drinking the water… I thought, I’d rather just take the extra precaution.”
She’s talking about Tom Henry, the environment reporter for the Toledo Blade. And he wants to be very clear:
“I don’t opt out. We drink tap water. It's perfectly fine,” he says via email. “What I tried to explain to Jack was that - during [the toxic bloom season] when the city uses more treatment chemicals - I fill up gallon jugs of water sold through machines at Kroger (39 cents a gallon) and Meijer (44 cents a gallon) as a precaution and for my own personal preference.
“That's still city tap water, but it's much more purified than what comes out of faucets. Those machines run city tap water through reverse osmosis (the best treatment - kidney dialysis centers use them), ozone treatment and ultraviolet light.
“It's a precaution, but also helps with taste and odors… Plus, water straight out of the tap here sometimes has a light film on it… I’m told it's harmless, but would rather not have that sheen if I can avoid it.”
If you live in Toledo, you probably know this guy
After the 2014 crisis, Toledo invested in a massive upgrade to its water treatment plant, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into improvements and repairs.
Ed Moore runs the city’s utilities department. And the last few years, he’s been on TV news pretty regularly to talk about water issues.
“So people recognize me, they do want to have that conversation,” he says. That includes strangers approaching him in grocery stores. “And the first thing I tell them is, your personal preference is your personal preference.”
If you want to drink bottled water, Ed Moore is not going to stop you. But now, he says the city can safely treat Lake Erie source water, and remove the toxins from those green blooms.
Even this recent summer, when the blooms were more toxic than last year. That toxin is called microcystin: it’s a contaminant that, the EPA warns, can hurt your liver and irritate your skin and eyes if you’re exposed to enough of it.
And ever since that water crisis in 2014, Ed Moore says, “we have not had any detects of microcystin in our tap water.”
The city regularly updates its online water quality dashboard, where the dial goes from “clear” to “watch,” and all the way up to “do not drink.”
They’ve got water testing data up online, and streaming video out on the buoy in Lake Erie at the intake site.
But for all the city’s new safety and transparency efforts, it’s just tough to convince everyone when the river and lake are green.
Kurt Young, the city council member who did the Facebook video, says he gets it. Just this week, he was at a council meeting when someone handed him a bottle of green, untreated Lake Erie tap water.
“And I had our security person take it away from me, because that’s potentially got microcystin in it, which is a toxin,” he says. “So I understand why people are afraid of it. That’s why we’re so concerned about it. We know what we’re up against.”
What they’re up against is all the phosphorus running into Lake Erie, from cities and towns nowhere near Toledo – and beyond the state of Ohio.
Toledo’s leaders want the state, and the federal EPA, to declare this part of Lake Erie “impaired.” They’re hoping that might lead to new regulations for farms and urban areas, forcing them to cut down the pollution creating these toxic blooms.
Right now, most of those efforts are voluntary. Michigan, Ohio and Ontario have agreed to cut phosphorus by 40% by 2025.
And this weekend, the Great Lakes governors and Ontario’s premier are getting together in Buffalo, where they’ll be talking about how those efforts are going so far.