The recent water crisis in Toledo, Ohio is not an isolated incident, and it won’t be the last. As the annual and increasingly severe algae blooms hit Lake Erie this year, levels of the toxin mycrocystin reached such high levels that the City of Toledo ordered a tap water ban because the toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting or impaired liver function. Residents were ordered not to drink the water or use it for cooking, brushing their teeth or pets. Children and people with compromised immune systems were even warned not to bathe with the water.
Caused by large amounts of phosphorus runoff from excessive fertilizer application on farms, manure from livestock feeding operations and aging wastewater infrastructure, the algae blooms in Lake Erie are nothing new. In fact, water contamination from industrial agriculture and wastewater discharge has repeatedly been a detriment to public waterways and sources of drinking water, causing previous contamination crises.
In 1997, outbreaks of Pfiesteria, a toxic algae, contaminated the Chesapeake Bay, Pocomoke River, Rappahannock River and other waterways of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Excessive nutrient run-off from the high concentration of chicken farms in the region, contracted by companies like Tyson, caused algae blooms and the subsequent spread of Pfiesteria. The outbreak resulted in large fish kills, with thousands of fish dying and showing signs of contamination like sores, ulcerous holes and whole chunks of fins missing. Public health effects also materialized, with several people experiencing neurological problems like short-term memory loss.
In the early 2000s, the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma faced water contamination from excess phosphorus runoff caused by land application of poultry litter and wastewater discharges. The runoff polluted Lake Eucha and Lake Spavinaw, which supplied drinking water to about half of the city’s 500,000 residents at the time of the incident, causing algae blooms and “foul-smelling and bitter tasting water.” As a result, the city faced substantial treatment costs from the runoff contamination and eventually brought suit against poultry industry companies like Tyson Foods, among others, as well as the city of Decatur, Arkansas for wastewater discharges.
Similarly, Des Moines, Iowa experienced historically high nitrate levels beginning in May 2013, caused by runoff from excessive fertilizer use in agricultural production. The nitrate levels reached as high as 24 milligrams per liter (mg/l), far above the accepted safe level of 10 mg/l. Des Moines Water Works, the municipal water utility for the city and surrounding communities, had to operate its Nitrate Removal Facility at a cost of $7,000 per day to keep nitrates at levels safe for consumption. This ended up costing consumers over $525,000. Left untreated, high levels of nitrates also pose the risk of Blue Baby Syndrome to infants six months old and younger — nitrates can reduce the ability of infant’s blood to carry oxygen, leading to death.
In other cases municipal water supplies have been contaminated with E. coli and other harmful contaminants due to runoff from factory farms and wastewater discharge into our public waterways. In 2000, Canada experienced one of its worst water contamination crises ever when the water supply for Walkerton, Ontario was contaminated with E. coli from nearby farm runoff. Seven people died from the outbreak and more than 2,300 became ill with symptoms like bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and other symptoms common with E. coli infections.
In a less severe but still serious case, residents of Morrison, Wisconsin also faced drinking water contamination from factory farm and other agricultural runoff. According to the New York Times, in 2009 more than 100 wells used for drinking water had become contaminated with E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants commonly found in manure, due largely to runoff from nearby dairy farms or fields covered with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage. Residents suffered chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.
These incidents might leave you wondering why we haven’t learned from the past and prevented future crises. The fact is, it’s well known that runaway fertilizer use, excessive nutrient runoff from factory farms and devil-may-care wastewater discharges from other polluters are responsible for the ongoing occurrence of these water crises. Instead, actors on all sides have knowingly ignored or tried to side-step directly addressing the issue with sub-par policies, largely because of undue influence from industry lobbies and special interests that stand behind those guilty of polluting our waterways.
Despite having policy tools like the Clean Water Act (CWA) that initially provided strong protections for our public waterways, it has since been weakened and little has changed. Industrial agriculture continues to be the highest source of pollution in many of our waterways and simultaneously these polluters remain some of the least regulated and continue to discharge pollution with impunity.
To make matters worse, the proposed solution to this has been to allow water quality trading as a way to comply with the CWA. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a giant step away from the public trust approach of the CWA when they created a plan that gives polluters the option to buy the right to pollute our waterways. The EPA is allowing polluters like coal-fired power plants to purchase “credits” from other polluters, like industrial agriculture, in lieu of controlling their discharges.
Until public and environmental health is put before industrial agriculture and other polluters’ interests, we stand to face more of the same crises at the cost to consumers. How do we go about changing this? First, water quality trading cannot stand as an option. It is a false solution and to date there is not one documented case of its success. Second, runoff from industrial agriculture must be regulated. Full stop. In 1977, amendments to the CWA set a strong and simple standard that polluting is illegal, and that the national goal is zero discharge of pollution into our public waterways. Our rivers, lakes and estuaries do not exist as dumping grounds for the pollution that comes from irresponsible and unsustainable industrial practices. There is no substitute for water — not polluting it is our only option.