Sep 14, 2017

A Growing Problem

Kate Ferguson

The summer of 2017 has been record-setting for some of the U.S.’s most important bodies of water—and not in a good way.

On the northern side of the country, Lake Erie is experiencing one of the largest algal blooms in recent years. In mid-August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the current bloom covered a significant portion of the lake’s western end, affecting portions of Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, Canada. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) like this have the potential to not only affect ecosystems by creating dead zones and releasing toxins that can kill fish and other aquatic wildlife, but also to affect drinking water, as the Lake Erie bloom did in 2014, when microcystin toxins in drinking water supplies led to a do not drink order for Toledo, Ohio.

Algae also are causing problems on the opposite side of the country. This summer, NOAA measured the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone at 8,776 sq miles, or about the size of New Jersey—the largest dead zone measured there since the agency began monitoring it in 1985. The algae’s growth and decomposition, “uses up the oxygen need to support life in the Gulf,” causing the dead zone where fish and other aquatic wildlife cannot survive, according to NOAA.

The root cause of the algal blooms in both Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico is nutrient pollution, which most commonly finds its way into bodies of water through storm water runoff. High levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus fuel excessive cyanobacteria and algae growth, leading to the potentially toxic blooms and dead zones. These problems may seem distant to those who don’t live in the Great Lakes or Gulf regions, but the reality is that every state in the U.S. is affected by nutrient pollution—according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 15,000 bodies of water across the country have been identified as having problems with nutrient pollution.

The growing problems with algal blooms provide a stark example of how important it is to consider the connections between all parts of the water cycle. In this case, the water used for irrigation, plus storm water runoff, carry contaminants into surface water, leading to negative effects on surface water supplies and ecosystems. In the case of Lake Erie, the water source for many in the surrounding states, these contaminants also can affect drinking water, as shown during Toledo’s 2014 microcystin crisis.

In providing drinking water solutions to customers, our market segment is just one small part of the greater water treatment industry. All segments, from drinking water treatment to wastewater treatment to storm water management, must work as a whole to ensure our water sources, and the ecosystems that inhabit that, remain healthy for us and future generations.

About the author

Kate Ferguson is editor-in-chief of WQP. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected]