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Algae Infects Lake Erie, Forces State of Emergency Due to Toxic Water

By Katy Galimberti, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
August 6, 2014; 9:33 AM ET

After algae in Lake Erie created toxic, undrinkable water for residents and businesses in the Toledo area for several days, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins said in a press conference Monday morning, August 4, that water was safe to use.

Water was deemed unsafe to use for all purposes for nearly 400,000 people.

On Sunday, city and state officials told residents around Toledo, Ohio, not to use tap water as they continued to monitor contamination levels, the Associated Press reported.

Water users were told Saturday to not use the city's water supply after tests revealed the presence of a toxin possibly from algae on Lake Erie, city officials said.

Algae is seen near the City of Toledo water intake crib, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Water wasn't even to be boiled because it would increase the concentration of toxins in the water, officials said in a news release.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared a state of emergency for three counties as a result of the finding and said that state and local officials were working to have drinking water shipped for affected residents of the state's fourth-largest city and surrounding area.

Water distribution sites supplied by local government and staffed by American Red Cross volunteers opened Saturday night to provide drinking water to local residents, the Red Cross said.

The Red Cross said it plans to deliver water for homebound residents, and volunteers and staff from across Ohio have been sent to Toledo to help.

Chicago water officials were also running precautionary tests on their water from Lake Michigan as a result of the Toledo advisory, the Chicago Tribune reported on its website. The tests have reportedly determined the water there is safe.

Other cities, including Detroit and Cleveland, have also reported received reports that their drinking water is still safe.

The news of the "do not drink or boil" water advisory follows on the heels of Ohio state officials releasing their first beach advisory on July 23 after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a June 2014 report predicting a significant threat to Lake Erie due to harmful algal blooms (HAB).

The blooms are a malignant type of cyanobacteria that crowd water areas, typically late in the summer to early fall for the Great Lakes region.

When the toxic algae blooms in a massive outburst, water conditions can prove unsafe for swimmers and animals.

Lake Erie endured an extreme bloom in 2011 that turned waters a putrid green and closed beaches due to health risks. Researchers expect 2014 blooms to be milder, though public safety could still be impacted.

A Recreational Public Health Advisory was issued at Maumee Bay State Park on Lake Erie on July 23, warning swimmers, especially children, elderly or those with compromised immune systems, that waters are at an elevated toxin level. Technically, swimming is still allowed in such waters, though it could prove to be adverse to health concerns.

Higher temperatures can be a contributing factor to an increase in blooms, according to Professor and Director at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan Don Scavia. However, he explained that the key factor is the amount of phosphorus flowing into the lakes from agricultural watersheds.

Satellite image shows the colossal spread of the 2011 blooms on Lake Erie which can cause destructive health risks and create economical problems. (Photo/NOAA)

When an excess of minerals, such as phosphorus, and other factors such as higher temperatures, the mix can create hazardous conditions.

According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the primary sources of nutrient pollution are runoff of fertilizers, animal manure, sewage treatment plant discharges, storm water runoff, car and power plant emissions and failing septic tanks.

The expanding amount of phosphorus can be a factor when researchers predict HAB amounts. Scientists are hoping to minimize the damage caused by the blooms with help from the tools used to forecast threat levels.

Researchers used 12 months of nutrient flow data to yield a prediction model.

"NOAA, Ohio Sea Grant, OSU, Heidelberg University and University of Toledo are developing tools to predict and target phosphorus, which will help in the fight to restore balance to Lake Erie's ecosystem, Ohio's greatest natural resource," U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur said in a press release.

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Along with health burdens, the blooms can create economic despair as it takes serious money to keep the public safe.

"When the blooms get close to water intakes, the treatment costs go up to protect human health. The blooms are also unsightly and significantly negatively impact tourism and recreational fisheries," Scavia said.

Blooms will become an increasing concern as temperatures rise for the duration of the summer. Residents are urged to monitor water threats with the Ohio EPA website, heed beach signs and be on alert for green water.

AccuWeather.com Staff Writer Mark Leberfinger contributed to this story.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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