Blame Game? Toledo’s Toxic Water Woes

Are you still following Toledo’s water crisis?

I still want to know fish1why the media is so quick to condemn the farmers and everyone else for all the phosphorus problems in Lake Erie without digging a little deeper.

We know fertilizer and phosphorus runoff is a contributor, but we also know it’s not the only factor. Within days of the story, reporters were quick to point the finger at farmers without doing additional research on the problem.

It’s true that a large portion of farmland along the western basin of Lake Erie is generating a great deal of concern based on reports by the International Joint Commission. So what is everyone waiting for? We know that a problem has existed for years, so it shouldn’t take a crisis in Toledo to encourage our lawmakers to come together. Still, there’s more to the story, and unless you live along Lake Erie, it’s difficult to understand the bloom phenomenon as we see it.

Take a look at these pictures. These are zebra mussel shells that have washed up along the western portion of Lake Erie. This is a problem that a lot of reporters are overlooking.

Researchers have estimated that one female zebra mussel can produce 30,000 to 1,000,000 eggs in one year, so couldn’t we plausibly add zebra and quagga mussels to the equation? The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) has been studying the connection between algal blooms in western Lake Erie to nutrient releases by zebra mussels for years. Take a look.

newpile3A researcher by the name of Hank Vanderploeg also looked at how zebra mussels selectively filter the phytoplankton that provides food to creatures that live in the sea. Apparently, zebra mussels will eat whatever they can filter, except for Microcystis, a species of freshwater cyanobacteria that create harmful algal blooms or HABs. This is the same toxic algae that is growing in Lake Erie, near Toledo, and has impacted its drinking water.

Once they’ve had their fill, zebra mussels excrete all the phosphate and ammonia nutrients so their excrement works like fertilizer, allowing the toxic algae to proliferate.

I am not a scientist by any means, but I am a journalist who understands the importance of looking at all of the angles. Folks are reporting that zebra mussels and quagga mussels are making a comeback, so why aren’t any of the reporters looking into it more? I started researching the problem a year ago, after discovering that zebra mussels were a huge problem on Lorain County beaches. Some of the research dates back to 1998 and beyond.

Last summer, I traveled to Cornell University in Ithaca to learn about composting the shells because I recognized we had to do something. I wrote a grant that was funded through NAPECA to teach youth to compost the shells, and now I am growing vegetables with zebra mussel shell compost in Ohio City.

Let’s continue to study the impact of zebra mussels before the blame game gets too far out of hand. I encourage the media to continue to shine the spotlight on education programs like the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program and feature more stories about farmers who are working hard to mitigate the problem.