Media calls on NCWQR during Toledo water crisis

Aug 5, 2014

Laura JohnsonDr. Laura Johnson, a research scientist with Heidelberg’s National Center for Water Quality Research, has been sought by various media outlets to shed light on the causes and solutions for Toledo’s recent water crisis.

The crisis, blamed on a toxic blue-green algal bloom that produced elevated levels of the chemical microcystin in the western Lake Erie basin near Toledo’s intake facility, forced city officials to ban the use of tap water for consumption and other uses for more than two days. The ban was lifted this morning.

Johnson said she wasn’t surprised by the crisis because late-summer algal blooms that have produced the microcystin have occurred in varying degrees since the late 1990s. What did surprise her to some degree, however, was the early timing of the dangerous bloom.

“Most (of the reporters) have asked why there’s a bloom and where the phosphorus is coming from that is feeding the bloom,” Johnson said this morning. “And they want to know what can be done about it.”

Recently, Johnson represented the lab during a webinar and press conference with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its partners about predictions for the harmful algal blooms this summer. At the event, the researchers predicted that bloom impacts would vary across the lake’s western basin. They classify impacts by studying the blooms’ concentration and spread.

On Sunday, Toledo TV station WNWO interviewed Johnson for a segment on the subject. She also was interviewed for articles that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch and USA Today. USA Today's article was circulated widely and appeared in major metro newspapers such as the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Indianapolis Star and the Nashville Tennessean, among others. Voice of America is planning an article and interviewed Johnson from Heidelberg's campus this morning. Additionally, Johnson spoke with Vice media for their food blog, Munchies, and she did a radio interview organized by the Sierra Club and produced by the Ohio News Connection.

Under the headline Toxins in Ohio water supply: Could it happen again?, The Dispatch published a followup editorial on Tuesday, Aug. 5.

Johnson said dissolved phosphorus is reaching Lake Erie in increasing amounts, contributing to the higher microcystin levels. Dissolved phosphorous “comes from lots of sources,” but it is thought to result in large measure from agricultural fertilizer applied on farms in the region.

A series of agricultural changes have contributed to the leaking of dissolved phosphorous into agricultural watersheds that feed into the lake, she said. “When the watersheds become susceptible, then the lake becomes susceptible. It’s more complicated than just (blaming the problem on) farm fertilizers.”

The solution lies into how and when fertilizer is applied, she said. “We’re not getting that fertilizer into the soil and mixing it really well with the soil like we used to back in the early ’80s,” she said on WNWO.

She added: “I don’t want to sound like we’re beating up on farmers. It’s not that clear-cut.”

Johnson recommends farmers practice the Four R’s as part of the solution:

  • Right source – applying the correct fertilizer
  • Right amount – testing soil to determine the amount of fertilizer to apply
  • Right place – figuring out how to get fertilizer deeper into the soil to curb runoff
  • Right time – applying fertilizer as close to planting as possible.

While addressing a solution, Johnson said the impact of this year’s algal bloom may not be over, which is news Toledoans won’t want to hear. “It’s very early in the season to be affecting the blooms,” she said. “This particular bloom is just hovering over drinking water intakes.”

All intakes are at risk, and the degree of risk depends on the quality of the filtration systems.

“It’s so early that the bloom has the potential to get bigger. There’s no reason we won’t be battling this problem all season,” she added. Dr. Ken Krieger, the NCWQR director, agreed. “This is an early problem that’s probably going to continue to grow; even if the wind blows the bloom away, it will continue to grow,” he said.

Krieger said NCWQR scientists have been studying microcystin for several years. The lab has equipment to detect the substance and is in the process of hiring an analytical chemist to add expertise to the process.

While the lab’s interpretive expertise was in demand, its instrumentation was not. “Because this issue affected public health, analysis needs to come from government labs,” Krieger explained. “Our expertise is in the causes and what can be done. It is a big, complex story.”

National Center for Water Quality Research