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Toledo’s water emergency demands a concerted effort to save Lake Erie

You have to feel for our neighbors across the lake in Toledo who were recently told not to drink city water because it was poisoned by toxic algae. And then you have to worry whether it will ever happen here.

High levels of cyanotoxin spawned by the algae blooms out in Lake Erie got into public water supplies in and around Toledo. Slack-jawed Great Lakes residents saw nearly inconceivable images of citizens in Ohio’s fourth-largest city, which is slightly larger than Buffalo, lining up behind water tank trucks for their ration of safe water.

Toledo residents were allowed to return to drinking, bathing and cooking in their own water last week, but they have to remain worried because conditions will favor the algae that produces the toxin until September. When the temperature, water runoff from land and winds are right, the problem will return. If not this year, then the next or the one after that, unless we act.

What happened in Toledo can be described as the warning canary in the coal mine. The toxic brew in the western end of Lake Erie must concern every lakeside community, and especially Buffalo, where much of the city’s renaissance is linked to its waterfront.

The fact that experts say such a water emergency is unlikely here is small comfort. Too much money and too much energy have been expended on cleaning up the lake over the past several decades to stand by and watch algae create a dead zone in the lake’s western basin.

We can start with the call by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., for federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would require every lakeshore community to monitor for toxins that come from the blue-green algae.

In Schumer’s words, “Toledo should be a wake-up call.” Congress should quickly answer his recommendation for the immediate distribution of money set aside in the 2014 Farm Bill to help farmers and factories reduce phosphorus and other pollutants that run off into the waters and fuel the development of algal blooms in Lake Erie.

The International Joint Commission, in its Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority report earlier this year, recommended governments on both sides of the border take action to drastically reduce the amount of phosphorous entering the lake. However, the commission has no enforcement authority, leaving it to government to provide solutions.

The Ohio legislature adopted recommendations urging farmers to greatly reduce the amount of phosphorus running off their fields, but did not order the reduction. The state should revisit those rules.

Startling fact: Exposure to the toxins can result in skin rashes and burns and liver and nerve damage. Even more startling: This isn’t the first scare.

Scientists who deal with the Great Lakes have issued warnings before, including when a giant bloom of toxic algae spread across Lake Erie in 2011. As T.J. Pignataro of The News reported, that bloom covered nearly 2,000 square miles of the lake from Toledo well into the central basin, reaching parts of the lake near Cleveland. And last year saw new developments, including toxins from western Lake Erie algal blooms cropping up on the Canadian shoreline unusually early, in mid-July. By last August, toxic algae was discovered for the first time in Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa., the farthest east ever and just 90 miles away from Buffalo.

Too close.

The City of Buffalo draws an average of 65 million gallons of water daily from the “Emerald Channel” at the end of Lake Erie and the start of the Niagara River. The county draws from two locations, 49 million gallons a day from an intake at Sturgeon Point and 22 millions gallons a day from the Niagara River in Tonawanda.

Knowing that our water is safe is comforting, but what happened in Toledo shows how fragile the lake is. Concerted action must begin now to address the problem and ensure clean drinking water far into the future.