Toledo…One Year Later

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This time last year the country was talking all about Toledo, and not in a good way.  The city was forced to shut off municipal water to the almost half a million people it serves due to the presence of toxins resulting from a harmful algal bloom.  While Toledo was an extreme case and other communities have in place additional defenses to protect against what happened there, it served as a lightning rod for action.  Or did it? 

Everyone wanted to know what had gone wrong and what could be done to protect against this situation in the future.  The press coverage was extensive.  Congress held hearings.  EPA began work on a health advisory.  But are the citizens of Toledo any better off?

Well, that question is easy to answer.  Yes, Toledo is now more prepared than it was to ensure that its ratepayers have safe and clean drinking water.  But the successful strategies municipal water suppliers have put in place to protect against harmful toxics associated with algal blooms or elevated levels of nitrate, as in Des Moines, Iowa, continue to mask that we have a real problem facing us.

It’s now August 2015 and we are once again talking about excess levels of phosphorus causing algal blooms, at the moment covering large portions of the western basin of Lake Erie and elsewhere in the country.  Why?  Because the root cause of the vast majority of the problem has yet to be addressed by all of the ‘action’ that has been taken over the past year.  Here’s just a snapshot of what has happened in the last few months:

  • In June, EPA issued two nonbinding health advisories for microcystin and cylindrospermopsin, two of the more well-studied cyanotoxins.  The levels, particularly for young children, are more stringent than current international guidelines. 
  • Ohio passed legislation in July that attempts to address the situation in Toledo by limiting fertilizer applications to reduce runoff potential and a statewide requirement for clean water utilities to monitor and conduct optimization studies to reduce phosphorus, all with no impact on the Great Lakes, as the utilities in the Lake Erie Basin are already controlling for phosphorus.  
  • Last week, President Obama signed into law The Drinking Water Protection Act.  The Act requires EPA to develop and submit a plan to Congress on how to address the public health risks associated with cyanotoxins and harmful algal blooms by November 5. 

What’s missing from all of these actions is any meaningful steps to address the underlying source of much of the excess phosphorus that is leading to the algal blooms and creating the risk for human health exposure to cyanotoxins.  Agriculture, the leading source of phosphorus discharges to the Great Lakes and in many parts of the country, is acknowledged but largely not addressed. 

Some lawmakers are starting to get it:  Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), all members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, sent Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a letter in July requesting that he utilize existing programs and authorities, including the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), to maximize farmer and rancher participation in such programs and identify both short- and long-term strategies for improving water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin.  This is largely a symbolic gesture, encouraging the Secretary to implement the programs already under his authority, but it hits on what will likely be one of the most successful tools for addressing this problem: partnership.

As was said on this blog last August, “[i]t will be unfortunate if the opportunity to work on a watershed basis with all sources of the problem to resolve this enduring problem are lost in the all-too-common shuffle of finger pointing, political maneuvering, and oversimplified sound bites.”  One year after Toledo, we still need innovative thinking, collaboration and partnerships to make this work.  But most importantly, we need agricultural interests at the table, willing and ready to engage in these efforts.  NACWA is honored to be working with the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) to explore where more of these on-the-ground partnerships can work and we look forward to engaging more of the agricultural sector in the future.    

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