TOPICS > Nation > Environment

How weather and nutrient pollution create fertile conditions for toxic algae blooms

August 4, 2014 at 6:09 PM EST
In Toledo, Ohio, Mayor Michael Collins ended a three-day ban on public water due to high toxin levels, likely caused by a massive algae bloom on Lake Erie. This year’s algae build-up came earlier than usual and officials warn it won’t be the last. Gwen Ifill talks to Marlene Harris-Taylor of The Toledo Blade and Anna Michalak of the Carnegie Institution for Science about the origins of the contamination.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now to the fallout from that big algae bloom in Lake Erie.

Toledo’s mayor lifted a glass to end the water ban today, but even as he did, experts warned this episode spotlighted significant problems that remain for the Great Lakes.

MAYOR MICHAEL COLLINS, Toledo: I’m pretty thirsty right now because it’s been a long night.

(APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: That’s how Toledo Mayor Michael Collins told the people of his city it’s OK to start drinking the water again. Since Saturday, 400,000 people in Ohio’s fourth largest city and 30,000 in southeastern Michigan lined up for bottled water, because toxin levels in tap water were too high.

WOMAN: Brushing teeth, we use one bottle of water, everybody. We share it.

GWEN IFILL: The likely culprit was a massive algae bloom on Lake Erie, a bright green scum caused by high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous that can come from farm and lawn fertilizers. But new tests today came back without traces of the toxin.

D. MICHAEL COLLINS: All six water came back with no problems whatsoever. There’s no discernible microcystin within these systems. So, this entire city at this moment in time, we are lifting in conjunction with the Ohio EPA the no-drink advisory. Our water is safe.

GWEN IFILL: Algae blooms in Lake Erie are fairly common. 2011 saw one of worst ever, as the swirling green blooms extended all the way across the lake to Canada. This year’s algae buildup has come earlier than usual and water officials warn it won’t be the last.

ERIC ZGODZINSKI, Toledo-Lucas County Health Department: The issue really is a chronic issue, and we’re going to keep on having this until we address the situation, and because we have — that’s what we have to do. We have to get the funds and the resources in here to look at, how do we stop this?

GWEN IFILL: The economic cost of the three-day ban is still being calculated. Toledo officials said they will be turning to the federal government for financial help.

So, we get some further reporting and insight on all of this.

Anna Michalak is a scientist who works on global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University. She is a leading expert on the water quality and sustainability of the Great Lakes. and Marlene Harris-Taylor is a reporter for The Toledo Blade.

Marlene Harris-Taylor, are people calmer today?

MARLENE HARRIS-TAYLOR, The Toledo Blade: Yes, I would say people are definitely calmer in Toledo today. There’s a sense of relief that the ban has been lifted and people can now drink water. But I think that there is still a little unease, because people want a few more answers, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: What kind of answers are they looking for, just the cause of it or just what they should do?

MARLENE HARRIS-TAYLOR: Well, the cause of it.

As you mentioned in your report, that this all started on Saturday morning, what people are wondering is, did city officials know before Saturday that the levels had actually spiked? Like, when did this actually start?

And city officials have not over the weekend been very transparent about the actual numbers, the readings that they were receiving from the EPA. So people have a lot of questions about, what were those final numbers?

How did they actually descend over the weekend? And how did they make that final determination that it was all clear?

And, lastly, I think feel are still wondering, is it really safe? Even though the mayor drank that glass of water, there are some people who are really still skeptical and they have been on social media saying, I’m not sure I can drink this water. I think I’m going to stick with this bottled water that I have been collecting all weekend.

GWEN IFILL: Anna Michalak, let’s talk about the science of this. Should people continue to be worried about what they are drinking?

ANNA MICHALAK, Carnegie Institution for Science: Well, as was mentioned, I don’t have access to the actual water quality reports from the lake.

I think the broader issue is that these types of blooms are happening at this point almost every year. And the last few years have been substantially larger than blooms we have seen before. And so the question is how do we decipher all the factors that are contributing to these blooms becoming larger and larger in recent years.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s try to decipher a few of them here. We know that, in 2012, there was one even larger than this. And in fact some officials are suggesting we may see more later this summer. What causes them to come it feels to the rest of us like out of nowhere, or is it something that has now become, as the water official suggested, chronic?

ANNA MICHALAK: Correct.

So 2011 saw the largest bloom by far than we had ever seen before. And in studying that bloom, what we understood is that it’s a combination of management practices on farm fields as well as meteorology. And so we’re seeing more and more very heavy springtime precipitation events that wash fertilizers off the fields and into the lakes.

And once they’re there, these fertilizers are essentially fertilizing the blooms. And when you combine that with warmer temperatures and wind conditions that are just right, you end up with consequences like the ones you just saw in Toledo.

GWEN IFILL: Why is this happening in the Great Lakes? Are they more susceptible to this sort of thing than other bodies of water?

ANNA MICHALAK: That’s a great question.

we’re actually seeing more and more impact of nutrient pollution around the U.S. on the East Coast, the West Coast, as well as inland. Within the Great Lakes system, Lake Erie is particularly susceptible both because of how much phosphorous goes into lake and also just because of the physical characteristics of the lake itself.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there something that can be done to get either the farms to use different kinds of pharmaceuticals on their crops or to get people to avoid — just expect this to happen every summer? Is there something that anybody can do to anticipate this?

ANNA MICHALAK: Ideally, what you want is a win-win situation.

So the farmers are really no more interested in the fertilizer ending up in the lake than we are. It is a waste of fertilizer and a waste of money from their perspective. The issue is to create measured practices that somehow can account for the changing features of meteorology that we are seeing as climate change starts to really take hold.

And so the question how do we farm in a way that actually fertilizes the crops rather than fertilizing the blooms?

GWEN IFILL: So, Marlene Harris-Taylor, who are — what are people — who — first of all, how did people get the news, and then what did they do next? Are they being told what they should do or what kind of precautions they should take? Are you personally taking precautions?

MARLENE HARRIS-TAYLOR: Well, which news, the news that they couldn’t drink or the news that they could drink today?

GWEN IFILL: All of it, actually.

MARLENE HARRIS-TAYLOR: How did they receive which news?

OK. Well, you know, it was really interesting because the news broke that we couldn’t drink the water in the dead of the night. Most people were asleep when these readings spiked up at 2:00 a.m. I myself, I was woken by my sister, who woke me up at 6:00 in the morning to tell me that she had seen this on social media, and that people were starting to run out to the stores and starting to hoard water.

So, my husband and I went out and we went out. We had to search for water ourselves for our family, for my husband and my two children. And so over the weekend, as the days have gone on, it went from initial, you know, a panic, oh, my God, I have got to get water, to the next day by Sunday people began to really be concerned about the elderly and the shut-in and people who couldn’t afford water.

And people really started to channel their energy into these distribution sites that the city had set up around town and started really coming together and helping others. And today now that we received the news as you showed from the mayor finally saying that we can drink the water again, now — the focus now is going to be what is next. Where do we go from here?

The city’s talking about a possibility of raising the water rates in Toledo, so that they can do some updates to our distribution system, our water cleaning system, which is quite antiquated.

GWEN IFILL: Anna Michalak, I want to ask you whether this — there is a long-term or a short-term even solution for this kind of annual bloom that we’re seeing.

ANNA MICHALAK: I think that short-term solutions are going to be very difficult, because each year is really different.

And it depends not just on what the farmers are doing, which, of course, is an important part of the equation, but also, what does the rainfall look like that spring? Does it come at just the wrong time to flush that fertilizer into the lake? How soon does the lake get warm enough for these blooms to take hold?

And so unfortunately in the short-term, it’s a matter of noticing things when they happen as quickly as possible so that you can react as Toledo did. But in longer-term, there are certainly some very serious conversations about how do we change the nutrient input into the lake so that even when the meteorological conditions are conducive to blooms, the impact is less than what we are seeing today?

GWEN IFILL: Anna Michalak of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, and Marlene Harris-Taylor of The Toledo Blade, thank you both very much.