Great Lakes
TOLEDO, OHIO - AUGUST 4: Algae washes ashore from Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park August 4, 2014 in Oregon, Ohio. Toledo, Ohio area residents were once again able to drink tap water after a two day ban due to algae related toxins. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images) (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

OH - Toxic algal blooms are driving up water costs in the Great Lakes

In Toledo, Ohio, monitoring and treating algae-contaminated water from Lake Erie costs $100 per family per year

On August 2, 2014, the residents of Toledo, Ohio, a port city on the shores of Lake Erie, woke up without clean water. Testing had detected elevated levels of microcystin — a potent liver toxin and possible human carcinogen — in the city's drinking water supply, and for three days, residents were told not to drink, bathe in, or even touch their tap water. The toxins were traced to a harmful algal bloom, or HAB, a potent green sludge made up of microscopic algae and bacteria that had sprouted in the shallow waters of the lake.

Alicia Smith remembers that day. Nearly half a million people lost access to drinking water, and 110 got sick, experiencing headaches, chest tightness, muscle weakness, and nausea. Smith is the director of the Junction Coalition, a community organization in Toledo that works on promoting environmental justice and economic empowerment for the city's low-income residents, many of them communities of color. Every August since then, she said, her neighbors worry about whether they'll lose access to water again as fresh blooms occur.

Beyond the health risks, Toledo residents are paying the price for this ever-present — and growing — threat. According to a report released in May by the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes, the city of Toledo spends, on average, $18.76 per person annually on HAB-related monitoring and treatment, which adds up to nearly $100 for a family of five per year. That cost, generated from data from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, is passed on to ratepayers, making water bills even less affordable for many residents, Smith said.

"We as the consumer have the burden of paying for a lack of regulation, mandates, and policies on water contamination," she told Grist.

The report is one of the first to examine the cost of harmful algal blooms, a yearly problem that's gotten worse in the last few decades. In the 1960s, before the "Clean Water Act" set limits on the discharge of pollutants from so-called "point" sources, like wastewater treatment plants, into the Great Lakes, the main cause of algal blooms was untreated sewage — a toxic stew for beach-goers, but a nitrogen-rich snack for algae. Now, though, the main food source for HABs is agricultural runoff — both excess fertilizer and animal waste, which contain phosphorus and nitrogen that flow from "nonpoint" sources like farm fields and are therefore not regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

This runoff, combined with discharges from combined sewer overflows and warming waters in the shallower parts of the Great Lakes, creates a perfect environment for HABs. Since 2012, the city of Toledo's public drinking water system has regularly tested the waters of Lake Erie for microcystin. It also monitors the levels of cyanobacteria, which produce microcystin and are a key component of algal blooms, on an hourly basis. But even if an algal bloom isn't toxic, treating the water and disposing of the waste that's created still adds an additional cost. These burdens are then passed down to ratepayers, in a region where the rising cost of water has already left thousands of families in debt or facing shutoffs.

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