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Governments Protect Lake Erie Drinking Water from Algae

A special session of the Environmental Council was held Thursday, January 23 on the topic of algae and Lake Erie. The program was particularly directed toward elected officials and operators of water intakes and treatment plants.

In the summer of 2013, operators of the water treatment system in Ottawa County’s Carroll Township temporarily shut down because of algae. In Toledo, water treatment plant operators needed a budget increase of $1 million to pay for chemicals required to address algae in the water supply.

Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in Fulton, Lucas, Monroe, Ottawa, and Wood counties. The Environmental Council program described actions that have been taken to protect the public from toxins and offered projections of what will be needed to assure safe water supplies in the future. The program included presentations from operators of the four largest water systems in the western Lake Erie region: the cities of Toledo, Monroe and Oregon, and Ottawa County.


“We can’t assume that phosphorus overload is solely caused by agriculture or any other single thing. We must consider geography, hydrology, demographics, chemical use, and how people live.”

Kenneth Fallows, chair of the TMACOG Environmental Council


The EPA does not mandate that water treatment plants test for microcystis, the cyanobacteria that is the cause of harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie. The plant operators began to test on their own several years ago when they became concerned about algae and toxins that are released when the algae die and disintegrate. The World Health Organization recommends that drinking water contain no more than 1.0 parts per billion and that is the figure that operators use as a benchmark. Kelly Frey of the Ottawa County plant noted that microcystis is toxic, more toxic than cyanide.

Algae is treated as part of standard water treatment protocol. Operators use chemicals including potassium permanganate, activated charcoal, (which is effective but expensive), and they use oxidation with ozone. Operators said that they are not certain which part of the protocol is most effective on algae. Frey said that while the plants are managing to contain the toxin now, the effort is “very concerning” and that he and fellow water treatment plant managers are “so fearful” that toxin from the bacteria could prove dangerous to the people who drink water from their facilities. All four of the water treatment experts on the panels said that the control of phosphorus runoff is the first step to reducing algae blooms. Agricultural fertilizer is often cited as a primary source of phosphorus and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have also been blamed as contributors. There have been ongoing questions about the role of dredged sediment disposal and its contribution to the phosphorus load.

Kenneth Fallows, chair of the TMACOG Environmental Council reminded the group of the complexity of phosphorus and other water pollution problems. “Keep in mind, these problems are regional,” he said. “We can’t assume that phosphorus overload is solely caused by agriculture or any other single thing. We must consider geography, hydrology, demographics, chemical use, and how people live.”

The Environmental Council will continue to promote and follow research on Lake Erie issues. All meetings of the council are open to the public. Dates and agendas are posted on the calendar at www.tmacog.org.

Doug Wagner, Water Treatment Plant Supt., City of Oregon; and Barry LaRoy, P.E., Director of Water and Wastewater Utilities, City of Monroe.
Kelly Frey, P.E., Sanitary Engineer, Ottawa County; and Andrew McClure, Administrator, Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, City of Toledo


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