Freshwater reserves that provide drinking water to millions of people in Ohio are under threat from toxins carried by the spread of algal blooms creating a serious public health concern. Unfortunately, a lot of Ohioans are already familiar with the health risks these toxins present.
This month is the one year anniversary of the Toledo water crisis when up to 500,000 people were without access to clean drinking water after a harmful algal bloom entered the area’s water treatment plant. I met with many of those who were personally affected after I filled my pickup with bottled water and helped pass out bottles to families who couldn’t use their tap water. It was a dire situation that lasted for three long days.
Just last month, experts predicted that this summer Lake Erie is on track to experience one of the most severe toxic algal bloom outbreaks in recent years. Eleven million people rely on Lake Erie for their drinking supplies, including three million in Ohio. Just last week, massive algal blooms were detected in the Western Lake Erie Basin, only a few miles from the city of Toledo’s water supply intake valve. Because of this, Toledo city officials have changed the city’s water quality status from “clear” to “watch,” as small amounts of toxins drifted closer to the intake valve.
And although protecting human health has to be our primary concern, there is an economic impact, as well. Many communities rely on our waterways as critical economic pillars. Lake Erie brought in $1.8 billion in economic activity and $226.3 million in taxes for 2013 alone. Tourism around the lake supports one 1 out of every 4 private sector jobs. I visited Lake Erie last month and hosted a town-hall meeting with local, state, and federal experts to discuss the threats to Lake Erie such as harmful algal blooms and invasive species. I spoke with small business owners, fishing boat captains, and residents and they were concerned about the future of the lake. Fighting harmful algal blooms is necessary to maintaining a healthy environment as well as a strong economy.
Toledo is not the only city in our state dealing with this issue. According to the Ohio EPA, 42 water systems in Ohio are susceptible to harmful algal blooms. The city of Celina spends $450,000 annually to combat algae in Grand Lakes St. Marys, and Columbus was forced to spend $723,000 to mitigate an algae outbreak at Hoover Reservoir in 2013. In fact, all states are at risk, as the frequency and distribution of harmful algal blooms have increased significantly in recent years. Local officials are working hard to solve this problem, and yet newly published images from a NASA satellite detect thick algal blooms across the middle of Lake Erie’s Western Basin.
Fortunately, last week, the Senate passed the Drinking Water Protection Act, a bill I introduced with Senator Sherrod Brown that will help protect Lake Erie and other fresh bodies of water. This important legislation directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and report to Congress a strategic Algal Toxin Risk Assessment and Management Plan within 90 days. This plan is required to evaluate and identify the risk to human health from drinking water contaminated with algal toxins and recommend feasible treatment options, including procedures on how to prevent algal toxins from reaching local water supplies and mitigate any adverse public health effects of algal toxins.
I am very pleased that my legislation, which previously passed by the House of Representatives with the leadership of Congressman Bob Latta, is now on its way to the President’s desk. It is one step towards stopping these toxic algal blooms and the health dangers they represent. I will continue to fight to ensure that all levels of government are committed to fighting this threat.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.