The loop of madness on improving water quality must stop
They are back. The same slime masses return every year to western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay, Lake Michigan, and many of our local inland lakes. They can be pea-soup green like a thick paint on the surface, cyan blue, red, brownish green, or just scum. They might look like swirls of lava lamps hanging just underwater, invisible on the surface. They are called HABs – harmful algae or blue-green algae blooms – but they are not true plant algae. They are cyanobacteria, one of the oldest life forms on the planet. Like plants, they get their energy from photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria use the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen, but their limiting nutrient is phosphorus. Cyanobacteria “feed” mainly on the compound orthophosphate, with phosphorus in soluble or dissolved form. Dissolved phosphorus will pass through pharmaceutical grade filtration (0.45 micron).
Some cyanobacteria can produce dangerous algal toxins (cyanotoxins). In our region, which is the western basin of Lake Erie and its headwater tributaries here of the Raisin River and Bean Creek (Tiffin River in Ohio), the most common cyanobacteria are Microcystis, Anabaena (Dolichospermum), Planktothrix and Cylindrospermopsis. Everyone can produce one or more of these toxins: microcystin, toxoid, cylindrospermopsin. Most of the samples I’ve collected are combinations of these.
During Toledo’s water crisis of 2014, residents across the metropolitan area lost their tap water because microcystin was found in the city’s treated drinking water at the sewage treatment plant. Cyanobacteria can cause diarrhea and rashes. Cyanotoxins, which are odorless, colorless and only visible at high magnification, can cause systemic damage and can be fatal. Boiling water concentrates cyanotoxins. You cannot filter released cyanotoxins with a pitcher, faucet, or most home water systems, even those that are NSF certified to remove bacteria and lead.
Many states (such as Ohio) have water quality standards and reporting requirements for cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins in their surface water and treated drinking water, but Michigan does not. The US EPA added cyanotoxins and cyanobacteria to its list of candidate contaminants for regulation in 1998, but still only makes recommendations. So regulation is up to the states, and Michigan chose to follow these lesser recommendations instead of safer protections like Ohio’s. However, individual municipal water treatment services can solve this growing problem.
That’s exactly what Ann Arbor, which has a mixed surface and groundwater system like Adrian’s, and Monroe have done. Toledo too. Traditionally, utilities treat cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins with mechanical filtration, activated carbon, potassium permanganate, and chlorine or chloramines. These cities have taken the critical step of adding ozone treatment. Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars on these improvements.
Agriculture is the largest contributor of phosphorus to western Lake Erie, even more so here in Lenawee County. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in this region on endless studies and programs like the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program in Michigan and now H2Ohio, suites of agricultural best management practices originally developed to strengthen the soil health, which have been promoted as nutrient pollution controls. But years of data and regional field studies show that these do not sufficiently retain phosphorus from agriculture out of our region’s massive network of underground slabs or surface waters. The December 2021 version of Michigan’s Adaptive Management Plan to reduce phosphorus loading to Lake Erie by 40% by 2025 reported that despite decades of this approach, dissolved (soluble) and of total phosphorus remained the same or increased in grapes.
The same is happening in the Maumee.
Then there is the huge economic loss to the tourism industry and property values.
Overreliance on these practices to the exclusion of better, more source-targeted measures has led us to this: we will not meet this 40% phosphorus reduction target by 2025. At the very least, we have need benchmarks that include numeric targets with measurable improvement requirements based on water quality testing instead of registered acre modeling, with enforceable timelines and consequences. The days of wasting more taxpayer dollars on misguided research, ineffective voluntary programs and shifting the costs of pollution to others downstream are long gone.
Pam Taylor is a retired Lenawee County teacher and environmental activist. She can be reached at [email protected].