One Year After Toledo, Our Waters Still at Risk

Last August, a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie left half a million people in the Toledo area unable to use their own tap water for drinking, bathing, or cooking. A year later, with another algae outbreak growing in Toledo's water supply, one thing is clear: If we want safe drinking water, we need better protections for our waterways.

So what happened in Lake Erie, and why is it happening again? For years, massive runoff pollution from agribusiness in the Maumee River basin has been contributing to enormous algae blooms, which create oxygen-deprived dead zones that can kill fish and make humans sick. According to scientists, such problems are likely to get worse as global warming increasingly impacts water levels and temperature.

And just like clockwork, a massive algae bloom is growing in the lake again this year. On Tuesday, Toledo's mayor announced that microcystin was detected in Lake Erie near the city's drinking water intake. Microcystin can cause nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, and in rare cases, liver damage. The toxin was detected in Lake Erie at levels deemed unsafe for children under six, pregnant women, and other sensitive populations.

To prevent problems like this from happening year after year, we need stronger safeguards to crack down on pollution from industrial agriculture. The Ohio legislature last year took the long overdue step of banning application of manure on frozen ground. That's a start, but by no means enough, with livestock on factory farms generating hundreds of millions of tons of manure every year.

But that's not to say we're not making progress. In fact, in May the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the biggest step in a decade to protect Lake Erie and waterways across the country when it finalized its Clean Water Rule. The Clean Water Rule restores protections to countless wetlands that help filter pollution before it gets to waterways like Lake Erie, as well as streams that contribute to the drinking water for 1 in 3 Americans.

Unfortunately, agribusiness, developers and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against the rule, and are pushing Congress and the courts to undo it. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has already come to the polluters' aid by suing to block the rule, but U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (D-Ohio) still has the chance to side with our rivers and lakes.

The senator convened a roundtable last week to discuss Lake Erie's algae troubles, and even brought some green water from the lake to illustrate the problem. "We're going to have to redouble our efforts," he told panel participants.

We agree. Redoubling efforts means backing the Clean Water Rule and measures to curb agricultural runoff from factory farms, and we urge Sen. Portman and other members of Congress to do just that. Our drinking water lies in the balance.