Environment & Science
9:30 am
Mon August 4, 2014

Toledo mayor lifts water ban

National Wildlife Federation President Collin O'Mara holding a glass of Lake Erie water.
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Update Monday, August 4th, 9:40am: Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins says the water ban is lifted in northwest Ohio and drinking water for 400,000 residents is safe. We'll have more details as they come in.

Sunday, August 3, 2014:   More than 400,000 people in Toledo and surrounding areas are without drinking water for a second day, due to a huge cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie, where the area gets its water supply.  The cyanobacteria, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae, create a dangerous toxin called microcystin, and exposure to the toxin can cause serious health issues. 

On Sunday afternoon, a boat hastily chartered by the National Wildlife Federation cruises over to see the massive cyanobacteria bloom floating near the city of Toledo.  It's hot, and it's a pretty day, but the water looks oddly bright green.

That's the cyanobacteria bloom. The blooms have been appearing for a couple of decades, but they're getting worse.

Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes says he and other officials have been worried about this for a long time.

“What we've experienced here shows us this is a dangerous situation,” Sykes said.

Collin O'Mara has been President of the National Wildlife Federation for just one month. He'd seen things like this before in his former job as Delaware's Secretary of Natural Resources, just nothing this bad.

When the boat arrives at the water intake, someone dips a glass into the water; it comes up thick with the cyanobacteria.

O'Mara says the cyanobacteria is being nurtured by nutrients flowing into the lake from manure from agricultural and animal farms, wastewater treatment plants, and lawn fertilizer.

Scientists say climate change is warming the water in Lake Erie and that’s helping the cyanobacteria too.

The water intake crib for the city of Toledo.
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

The blooms can pop up anywhere in the lake. This one just happened to surround the water intake crib for Toledo. When alarming levels of toxin showed up in the water, people were told to stop drinking the water, and at first, no bathing, or even brushing their teeth using the water.

So you think people would be panicking, but lines at Ohio National Guard distribution centers for water have been orderly.

Things are pretty calm in Bedford Township too.  That's one of the little towns across the border in Michigan that also gets its water from Toledo.

Pat Haines is swinging by city hall's makeshift water emergency center to pick up some bottles for her elderly neighbors.

"We have a lot of older people, and everybody takes care of everybody. So if they need something, we'll see to it,” Haines.

Monroe County Commissioner Jason Shepherd says about 3,000 people have come through town hall here to pick up bottled water and fill up big plastic containers on Saturday and Sunday.

Lots of groups are contributing water and lots of people are helping distribute it. Eleven-year-old Blake Alsbach is with a group of boy scouts helping out.

Like so many others here in Bedford, he's approaching the situation with a level head.

"We want to help out everybody. We want people to keep calm and not panic,” Alsbach said.

That's the same message being delivered by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who gave a press conference about the crisis in Toledo Sunday afternoon. It appears people are listening.

But, although levels of the toxin seem to be dropping, no one knows when the municipal water will be safe.  And there's a good month and a half of summer storms, and hot weather ahead.

Officials expect to have some kind of update later today.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to "algae blooms" in Lake Erie. These are really bacterial blooms (cyanobacteria) that look like algae. The copy has been clarified above.