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When The Algae Monster Knocks At Your Door

Over the weekend, the Toledo Rowing Club hosted the 32nd annual “Frogtown Regatta” on the Maumee River in downtown Toledo. Toledo was given the nickname “Frog Town” because the area was once part of the great black swamp. Over 1,200 rowers from six different states competed in slimey, green, toxic water just days after the local health department announced a “recreational contact advisory.”

In the face of this warning, these athletes rowed on, carving their oars into the green as they went. Even though teams were notified ahead of time regarding the health department’s contact advisory, they still held the race. The organizers took an extra step to set up showers with clean water so participants could wash algae off if they happened to make contact.

You see, Toledo is no stranger to the algae monster. In the 60 days since the first of August, the City of Toledo’s water treatment plant alerted customers of potential drinking water concerns by changing their alert system from “clear” to “watch” on three different occasions. Toledo’s nearest Lake Erie beach at Maumee Bay State Park has posted swimming advisories for a total of 49 days. The Toledo Blade has published 51 separate articles regarding the impact of toxic algae on the environment and to the Toledo community. These water alerts are not new to the people of Toledo.

Toledoans are forced to live with the reality of toxic algae, and they are reminded of its dangers almost every single day. They see it when they visit the riverfront or the beach. They smell it rotting in the sun on Saturday mornings at the downtown Farmers Market. They know the algae is there when they turn on their kitchen faucet: the shimmery film on top the water and the accompanying chlorine smell are the symptoms of water treated for safe consumption. Many Toledoans stock gallons upon gallons of clean, bottled water at home in preparation for a day when they again cannot drink the water. This happened before, in 2014 almost a half a million Toledo area residents went almost three days without water due to toxic algae.

 

This past weekend, the algae monster reared its green head in downtown Toledo in a way it had not done before. The algae crept from Lake Erie and up the mouth of the Maumee River, smearing a putrid spinach scum on boats and coating the downtown waterfront for Toledoans to experience up close and personal. The reaction from the community has ranged from absolute outrage to utter sadness. The people of Toledo want a change.

Scientists leave little to debate regarding the cause of these dangerous algal blooms. The science points to the large amounts of phosphorus pollution washing off of farmlands in the western Lake Erie watershed, which flows into the Maumee River and then the lake.

For the most part, the City of Toledo has taken responsibility for their contribution to the problem. The City will soon complete a twenty-year infrastructure upgrade, separating the wastewater from stormwater sewers to reduce water pollution. Toledo has also spent millions of dollars upgrading wastewater and drinking water treatment, as well as investing in green infrastructure projects to help eliminate its phosphorus contribution. The Lucas County Commissioners, the Mayor of Toledo, and local leaders have now doubled-doubled down on their commitment to advocate for a clean lake and river and ensure safe drinking water for all who call the region home.

The OEC is proud to join Toledoans in calling for coordinated leadership from state and federal policymakers to fix this problem. We have the solutions in hand, but we need support to make it a reality. Most of the best science available shows there are real measures we can take now to drastically reduce the impact of both urban stormwater and farm field runoff impacting Lake Erie’s toxic algae problem. We need some action to put these measures into place to begin to put us on the right path.

It’s unfortunate that Toledoans mostly avoid Lake Erie, Maumee Bay State Park Beach, Maumee Bay and the Maumee River, because when I was growing up, these places were popular destinations for families to swim, play and fish. We need to fix these problems to return these Toledo-area staples to community hubs once again. We owe it to Toledoans of all ages, to do what we can to provide a healthier, prosperous future for everyone.