Ohio Water Toxic Due to Industry and Global Warming

6 08 2014

This is climate change: Ohio’s water crisis was a man-made disaster: Industrial agriculture, invasive species and warming temperatures are all vital parts of this weekend’s big story

 

This is climate change: Ohio's water crisis was a man-made disasterSatellite image of 2011 Lake Erie bloom (the most severe in decades) (Credit: MERIS/NASA)

Over the weekend, 400,000 people in northwest Ohio were told that their tap water was no longer safe to drink, cook with or bathe in. Water at a treatment plant had tested positive for dangerously high levels of toxins. Residents were warned that microcystis, the bacteria behind the chaos, can cause skin rashes and burns, along with vomiting, diarrhea and liver problems. It’s been known to kill pets and livestock. And boiling water, officials added, only makes the problem worse. Life came, temporarily, to something of a standstill until 9 a.m. Monday when, after extra, precautionary delays, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins finally declared the water safe again.

Welcome to life — weird, chaotic, scary, disruptive — in a changing climate. The direct cause of Ohio’s water problems, according to city officials, was likely an algae bloom in Lake Erie. The cause of the algae bloom? In a word: Us.

The lake, the world’s largest freshwater system, has been increasingly overwhelmed by an influx of phosphorus: runoff from industrial agriculture and from urban sewage treatment plants. Meanwhile, summer has been becoming hotter and longer, conditions that promote the algae’s spread. An oft-cited study, published in 2013 in the journal Nature, found that those two factors combined are contributing to an increase in harmful algae blooms — a problem, the researchers added, that’s “only going to get worse.”

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