The recent crisis in Toledo where toxic algae blooms led to the shut off of municipal water to almost half a million people serves as a painful reminder that we should not take clean water for granted, something we as a nation are too often prone to do.
The culprit in the Toledo case – toxic algae -is not unique to Ohio and Lake Erie. While few species of algae produce toxins that pose human health risks, algal blooms are often harmful to aquatic life (e.g., Gulf Dead Zone, Chesapeake Bay) and can have profound economic impacts on commercial fishing and tourism. The formation of algal blooms is exacerbated by excessive and often uncontrolled drainage of nutrients, especially phosphorus, into water bodies. Main sources of nutrients include agricultural runoff, fertilizers, failing septic tanks and, in some instances, wastewater treatment facilities.
The Toledo crisis, and more broadly Lake Erie pollution, has already become a major issue in the 2014 Ohio gubernatorial race, putting it on center stage nationally. It will likely be debated that the problem can be addressed by utilities through more effective testing methods and treatment technology due to facts that have come to light regarding the adequacy of the Toledo treatment facility. There is no denying that it is incumbent upon public utilities to make the necessary infrastructure investments and set/raise rates appropriately to operate in compliance with the law and ensure protection of human health and the environment. However, such an approach is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It 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.
Due to the limitations of the Clean Water Act, regulatory agencies often must rely on incentive-based programs to attempt to curtail nonpoint source contributions. To ensure safe and clean water whether from our taps or in the rivers where we fish and swim, and do so without disproportionately and inequitably placing the lion’s share of the burden on the shoulders of public utilities, we need innovative thinking, collaboration and partnerships to implement nutrient reduction strategies – and an essential ingredient for success is to have agriculture at the table. Early indications are that agricultural interests are committed to work with the clean water utility community to solve this national problem, but it will take time, money, and a growing understanding by Congress and EPA that we need more flexibility to achieve viable and sustainable watershed-based solutions.
The recent passage of the 2014 Farm Bill should be commended as an important first step. In particular, the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) facilitates partnerships between clean water utilities and agriculture to implement innovative nutrient management solutions. NACWA, along with leaders in the agricultural community, has supported this – and other efforts to deal with nutrient issues – by working collaboratively to address this challenge.
The Toledo incident has already sparked a national dialogue on the undeniable value of water and the critical need to effectively address the remaining and evolving challenges to our nation’s water quality. From this crisis we must seize this unique opportunity, because such moments are fleeting, the tap water is already flowing again and there are a great many things competing for the attention of the American public and their elected officials. Let’s make sure that a focus on the importance of clean water remains at the top of the agenda.
What You Can Do to Help
Contact your elected officials – tell them it’s time to make agriculture a true clean water partner (find your Representatives and Senators). Use your power as a consumer to purchase goods from farms/agricultural operations with a solid track record on clean water. Many states sponsor clean water farm awards that can be useful in determining clean water champions in your state (e.g., Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation).