Dead zones ahead, from Great Lakes to Gulf of Mexico

During the first weekend in August, about 400,000 people in and around Toledo couldn’t drink the water — or even wash in it. They normally get water from Lake Erie. This summer, Lake Erie was so polluted that the water was unfit for human use.

The city of Toledo issued a pretty scary warning, reading in part:

“Most importantly, water should not be consumed until an all clear is issued. It is important to state that this drinking water alert does NOT recommend boiling, and in fact, boiling water can worsen the situation. …

“Consuming water containing algal toxins may result in abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness or dizziness.  Seek medical attention if you feel you have been exposed to algal toxins and are having adverse health effects.   Contact a veterinarian immediately if pets or livestock show signs of illness.”

Toledo is a city of about half a million. Imagine that happening here in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Imagine the Mississippi being so polluted that we couldn’t draw our drinking water from it.

Lake Erie once was a great success story, going from “dead” in the 1960s to cleaned up and fishable and drinkable. Now it’s headed the wrong way again. Lake Erie’s pollution came from phosphorus run-off, causing a deadly algae bloom and toxins called microcystins. We know what caused the problem, and we know how to fix it, but we lack the will to do so. The New York Times summarized it in one of last year’s articles about Lake Erie’s pollution and dead zone:

“To cut phosphorus levels this time, scientists say, the habits — and the expensive equipment — of 70,000 farmers along the Erie shore must change. Most of the phosphorus that feeds algae these days comes from farmland.”

The danger goes far beyond Lake Erie. The dead zone created by phosphorous run-off into Lake Erie is like the dead zone growing in other lakes, including parts of Lake Huron and Canada’s Lake Winnipeg. It’s like the gigantic dead zone growing in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by the phosphorus flowing from our farm fields down the Mississippi and out into the Gulf.

Five years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an urgent call to action.

“Nutrient-related pollution significantly affects drinking water supplies, aquatic life and recreational water quality. These impacts occur in all categories of waters—rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries and coastal areas.”

Voluntary action is not enough. State action is not enough. The pollution problem crosses state lines and national boundaries. The EPA report concluded that:

“State and EPA drinking water and surface water quality program directors agree that the current national approach to controlling nutrients will not result in adequate water quality protections. We are losing ground in addressing existing sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. … More specifically, we know that absent a change in our current approach, nutrient loadings and resulting impacts will grow sharply over the next 40 years as a result of increased urbanization, expanded agriculture, demand for energy, and need for increased transportation.”

The good news — we know how to solve the problem. The report lists dozens of actions that we must take to solve this problem. No single action is enough. The call to action, urgent in 2009, sounds even more urgent today.

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