Wednesday, October 1, 2014
In early August, microcystin from toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie forced officials to issue a “do not drink” order for all municipal water users in Toledo. The drinking-and-cooking ban affected nearly 400,000 people and lasted for two days, leaving residents scrambling for bottled water. Given that some 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, Toledo’s experience was something of a wake-up call for leaders throughout the region.
Last week, mayors and officials from cities throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence watersheds met at the Mayors Drinking Water Summit in Chicago to discuss measures needed to prevent the kind of pollution that poisoned the water in Toledo. A biggest culprit in polluting the water is excess phosphorus loads in runoff, which feeds toxic algal blooms. The mayors called for concrete steps to address both agricultural and urban sources of runoff:
- For the EPA to establish a common limit and an emergency response protocol for microcystin in drinking water for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region;
- For Great Lakes states to establish a phosphorus open lake water quality standard;
- For agriculture to further reduce the runoff from farms into Lake Erie, including better nutrient management and application of the ‘4R Nutrient Stewardship’ program;
- For municipalities to further reduce phosphorus loadings through more green infrastructure, better treatment plant operations, and pollution prevention measures.
One aggravating factor in the spikes the increasing prevalence of high-precipitation rain storms occasioned by climate change. Heavy storms strip fertilizer from fields and cause municipal sewer systems to overflow, causing large spikes of excess phosphorus to flow into the Great Lakes. Cities sorely need upgrades to antiquated sewer systems that overflow during heavy rain events. In the meantime, cities can better prepare for these intense storms by working to increase the amount of green infrastructure—green roofs, wetlands, and vegetation—to capture rainfall as it occurs and filter runoff.
Last week municipal leaders and environmental groups stood together in calling for swift and sensible action. What happens from here remains to be seen, but if there is one environmental issue that pretty much everyone can get behind quickly it’s that the water that flows from the tap should be safe enough to drink.
On another note: this is my last guest post here at Land Use Prof Blog. Many thanks to Jess Owley and Stephen Miller for inviting me into the conversation.
~Celeste B. Pagano, DePaul University College of Law