Water crisis has lessons for Michigan

Who would have thought that in 2014 a major American city, located in the midst of the world’s largest freshwater resource, could lose its drinking water due to a contamination scare? Yet that’s just what happened earlier this month in Toledo, Ohio, where 400,000 people served by the city’s water system had to go without municipal water for two days due to the presence of a toxin produced by algae in Lake Erie. It’s almost impossible that such a scenario could play out in Lake Michigan, but the Toledo crisis offers some environmental lessons we, in West Michigan, should keep in mind.

The kind of algae blooms that affect Lake Erie don’t occur in Lake Michigan for several reasons – our lake is colder, much deeper and gets less agricultural runoff than Lake Erie. Erie is more like a certain inland lake we know here, says Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute: “Lake Erie is like Lake Macatawa on steroids.” Algae blooms occur in Lake Mac and other river-mouth lakes up and down the eastern shore of Lake Michigan (fortunately these lakes are not drinking water sources), and the substance that fed the Lake Erie algae bloom and Toledo contamination scare is the same one responsible for the murkiness of our Lake Mac – excessive phosphorus, most of it from farm runoff.

A lot of progress has been made in recent years in getting phosphorus out of consumer products such as detergents and lawn fertilizer, however, as the folks in Ohio have learned, reducing the amount of phosphorus that comes from agricultural runoff has been difficult. Farm runoff is not the only source of phosphorus in our lakes – runoff from urban yards and streets and sewage plant overflows also contribute – but it’s the biggest culprit and we can’t make our lakes cleaner without addressing it. Reducing agricultural runoff is one of the major goals of Project Clarity, the Lake Mac cleanup effort of the Macatawa Watershed Project and the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council. We hope the Project Clarity plan succeeds in this area where previous educational efforts haven’t, since we’d much rather see the problem of farm runoff addressed through voluntary means than through government regulation.

Another concern for the health of our lakes, says Steinman, is the effect of climate change. Algae flourish in warm water, Steinman says, and also like the calm conditions that tend to occur as lake temperatures rise (Lake Erie is the warmest of the Great Lakes). One general prediction of a warming atmosphere is less overall precipitation but more intense rainstorms – the kind of storms that flush large volumes of runoff into lakes and overwhelm sewage treatment systems.

In general, the Toledo crisis should remind us that we in the Great Lakes are not invulnerable when it comes to water problems. We may not face the issue of algae-produced toxins in Lake Michigan, but given the threats of invasive species and climate change it’s impossible to predict what future environmental challenges we may face. And our inland lakes are already suffering from the same conditions that caused fear and disruption along Lake Erie. The Toledo crisis shows us we can’t take anything for granted when it comes to a resource as precious as fresh water.

– The Holland Sentinel