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Toledo’s water woes keep Buffalo area officials alert – but not nervous

As relief spread through western Ohio on Monday after Toledo lifted its ban on drinking the city’s tap water, so did a nagging question on Buffalo’s side of Lake Erie.

Could toxins caused by algae blooms threaten this area’s water supply?

The simple answer is yes.

“Yes, if the bloom gets bigger and larger,” said Raj Bejankiwar, a scientist with the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian organization that advises both nations on the Great Lakes.

But a bloom would have to be much bigger and much larger.

Many factors lessen Buffalo’s prospects of enduring what Ohio’s fourth-largest city dealt with over the weekend, Bejankiwar and other scientists say.

Buffalo is located at the farthest point on the lake from the large toxic blooms.

The deep and oxygen-rich eastern basin helps inhibit the rapid proliferation of the algae, so often seen in the western basin of the lake between Toledo and Sandusky, Ohio.

The shallower western basin is more susceptible to the toxic blooms because it receives large amounts of phosphorous and other nutrients in runoff from the Maumee River, which empties its heavily agricultural 4 million-acre watershed into Lake Erie at Toledo.

“Maumee Bay is ground zero for algal blooms,” Bejankiwar said. “That’s where the blooms start to spread from the western basin to the central basin.”

Still, what happened in Toledo should serve as a wakeup call for Lake Erie communities in Western New York, Sen. Charles E. Schumer said Monday.

Schumer, D-N.Y., reiterated his earlier call for federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would require every lakeshore community to monitor for toxins that could come from blue-green algae.

“This is not just a state problem, it’s a national problem,” Schumer said.

Schumer said the EPA is already working on developing regulations for testing for toxins.

“Toledo should be a wakeup call,” Schumer said. “And they should hurry up and get out the regulations as to how to do it and the requirement that every town do it.”

Schumer also said he would like to see the immediate distribution of money set aside in the 2014 Farm Bill to help farmers and factories deal with phosphorus and other pollutants that run off into the waters and fuel the development of algal blooms in Lake Erie.

A “quick and large campaign” to clean up the lake, Schumer said, could “avoid what happened in Toledo from ever happening in Western New York.”

Toledo residents Saturday were told not to drink city water after tests from a treatment plant showed toxin levels from algae were too high.

High levels of cyanotoxin spawned by the algal blooms inundated public water supplies in and around Toledo.

Bejankiwar was unaware of any serious illnesses resulting from exposure to the toxin, although he noted about 50 to 60 people visited hospitals for evaluations, many after taking showers in the contaminated water.

Exposure to toxins can result in skin rashes and burns, liver and nerve damage.

News that a city’s water system could be shut down sounds shocking, but scientists from the International Joint Commission and other agencies who deal with the Great Lakes have issued warnings even before a massive bloom of toxic algae spread across the Lake Erie in 2011. That bloom covered nearly 2,000 square miles of the lake from Toledo well into the central basin, reaching part of the lake near Cleveland.

After a relatively calm 2012 – mostly because of near droughtlike conditions that scientists say kept agricultural runoff from entering the lake – warnings surfaced again last year with a series of disturbing firsts.

Toxins from western Lake Erie algal blooms cropped up on the Canadian shoreline unusually early in mid-July last year.

By last August, toxic algae was discovered for the first time in Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa., the farthest east they’d ever been found and just 90 miles away from Buffalo.

After Labor Day last year, the first water treatment plant – in Carroll Township, Ohio – was shuttered for a few days and residents were forced to use bottled water when microcystin toxin from the algal blooms invaded the water supply.

That’s why the International Joint Commission, in its Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority report earlier this year, recommended governments take action to drastically reduce the amount of phosphorous entering the lake from agricultural runoff and other sources like stormwater and wastewater overflows.

The commission, an advisory body, has no enforcement powers.

Commissioners, during hearings last year, said the most challenging part of solving the algal bloom problem on Lake Erie is getting officials from two federal governments, five states and a Canadian province, to agree on steps.

In May, Schumer held a news conference at Erie Basin Marina and called for federal action on the issue of harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie.

Water quality experts in Western New York are keenly aware of what’s occurring on the other side of Lake Erie.

“It doesn’t make us nervous, it makes us aware,” said Steve Stepniak, Buffalo’s commissioner of public works. “The treatment process in Buffalo is able to manage blue-green algae.”

Stepniak pointed out the city’s water supply is a uniquely clean one. The city’s takes in an average of 65 million gallons of water every day at the end of Lake Erie at the start of the Niagara River, from what’s known as the “Emerald Channel” – one of the “deeper and faster moving” parts of Lake Erie’s water.

“It helps prevent stagnation and promotes clean water,” Stepniak said. “It’s one of the purest areas of water in the lake. We’re taking from the best possible area you can possibly take from.”

Erie County Water Authority officials also remain confident about delivering clean, quality drinking water to its customers. “It’s very unlikely this condition would occur on this end of the lake,” said Paul Whittam, the director of water quality for the Water Authority.

Whittam pointed out that given that the toxic algae is most common in shallower, calmer waters with high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen like the western basin, if it were to reach the eastern end of the lake, officials here would likely have a head start at battling it.

The county draws its water in two locations – an intake at Sturgeon Point where, on average, 49 million gallons are taken in every day, and along the Niagara River in Tonawanda, where an average 22 million gallons are taken in daily.

“We are very vigilant for any kind of water quality,” Whittam said. “We are monitoring it more actively than we have in the past. Our monitoring has not changed. We’ve just increased it.”

News Staff Reporter Denise Jewell Gee contributed to this report. email: