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Toledo Water Ban Lifted, But Is the Water Safe and What Caused the Toxic Algae Bloom?

The City of Toledo issued a “Do Not Drink” advisory to more than 400,000 residents last weekend after chemical tests confirmed the presence of unsafe levels of the algal toxin Microcystin in the drinking water in three counties in Ohio and one in Michigan.

Last night on MSNBC's the Ed Show, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant College Program at Ohio State University, discussed the possible causes, including farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants.

"In order to solve this, we have to reduce the amount of phosphorus leaving our farm fields, coming out of our sewage treatment plants, failing septic tanks ... The biggest source in the Maumee River, because that river drains four and a half million acres of agricultural land, is agriculture runoff," said Reutter.

Also speaking on this issue from the Toledo area is Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper. She provided me this statement this morning:

The heroes of the devastating Do Not Drink Toledo’s water are the Toledo, Oregon, Carroll Township and Ottawa County water plant operators who took it upon themselves to voluntarily test for the toxin microcystin. Last year, Carroll Township, a city that draws water from Lake Erie, issued a Do No Drink the Water advisory. There was an outcry from water plant operators for federal and state microcystin standards, and testing and treatment guidelines. But, nothing happened. The federal government and the state of Ohio needs to determine what the safe drinking water standard is for microcystin rather than relying on the World Health Organization. For example, the state of Minnesota has a standard of .041 parts per billion, but the World Health Organization's standard is 1.0 parts per billion.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by blooms of freshwater algae, which are a vast and growing problem in Lake Erie—Toledo’s drinking water source. Photo credit: Lake Erie Waterkeeper

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to create a source water protection plan under the Safe Drinking Water Act for the Toledo drinking water intake. This would put forth a plan to reduce the algae sources of the Toledo drinking water intake. The International Joint Commission has also recommended creating a plan for a total maximum daily load for phosphorus reductions in the western basin of Lake Erie. These programs need to begin now.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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