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Responsibility for Toledo's water crisis should be shared

Algae is seen at Maumee Bay State Park on August 4, 2014.
Algae is seen at Maumee Bay State Park on August 4, 2014.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

While state and city officials spar over the condition of the water treatment system in Toledo, Ohio, and others are quick to blame farmers, it would appear that responsibility for last weekend’s water crisis there runs much deeper.

Phosphorus runoff is responsible for feeding blue-green algae, and blue-green algae are what create the toxins found in Toledo’s water last weekend. An examination of how this occurred revealed that many lessons are learned from natural history.

The Maumee River, which feeds the portion of Lake Erie where Toledo’s water intake lies, drains the largest area of any tributary in the Great Lakes region. Farms are common within the 8,316 square miles of the Maumee River watershed. Because it drains a large area, the river is vulnerable to phosphorus runoff buildup. The waters of Lake Erie are also more shallow and warmer than the other Great Lakes, and warmer water encourages the toxic algae blooms. Perhaps more telling than these statistics, however is the fact that much of the Maumee River watershed is largely a reclaimed wetland.

The Great Black Swamp stretched through 1,500 square miles of the Maumee and Portage River watersheds at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was drained and settled soon after.

Around 1850, Bowling Green inventor James B. Hill began marketing his Buckeye Traction Ditcher, which laid drainage tile at a rate never before seen. This is seen as the key event in the drainage of the swamp, and the states of Ohio and Indiana supported projects over the next forty years which resulted in the topography seen in that area today.

Wetlands, like the Great Black Swamp, are acknowledged for their ability to filter unwanted minerals and toxins from the water they contain. Plants, animals, and micro-organisms that occur there are known to take up, trap, and filter many unwanted compounds.

Ultimately, human activity in the scale that today’s population requires will have an environmental impact, one that needs to be mitigated. Otherwise, amphibians and aquatic micro-organisms won’t be the only ones affected.

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