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Update on Water for Toledo

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Davis
April 20, 2018

Toledo last made national news for its water plant four years ago when routine monitoring detected microcystin – a toxin produced by the harmful blue-green algae. The Water Department immediately halted distribution and advised citizens not to drink or even use the water. The toxin had been sucked into the intake three miles out in Lake Erie when winds and currents had shifted. The ban lasted three days until the water was safe again. The cause had been a gigantic algae bloom fed by runoff from fertilizer and manure from farms in the Maumee River Basin. Bad luck played a role. The algae was worse than usual that year and the wind and currents fed the toxin directly into the intake that day.

The microcystin crisis brought attention to the water system. The plant itself was 72 years old, built during the New Deal and dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Although modernized over the years, it needed more upgrading. On land, the distribution pipelines extend far beyond the city limits into the western suburbs and even across the state line into Monroe County in Michigan. Over the years, the municipality had extended the lines while charging dearly. Many suburban residents paid twice as much as city residents paid. Nevertheless, this was less than the cost of building their own facilities.

Even before the crisis many civic leaders talked about the need for a regional system. The issue had figured in the 2017 election for mayor. In this nonpartisan vote, business leaders and the conservative Toledo Blade favored the challenger, and eventual winner, Wade Kapszukiewicz, who looked more like a leader than the incumbent, who was a petite African-American woman.

On January 31, the city and the suburbs signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a regional Toledo Area Water Authority with seven members to take over the intake, the purification plant and the distribution system from the city Water Department. Only two members would be from Toledo. Critics immediately attacked the plan as giving away some facility worth $2.3 billion dollars to the suburbs. One called it “Grand Theft.” A popular former mayor announced a group to oppose the Authority as a giveaway. Many city residents were shocked that the price of water would double once the municipality could no longer exercise its monopoly pricing. A bit late in the process, lawyers discovered that the city’s home rule status would require a popular referendum. As the proposed MOU showed strains, four of the suburbs proposed their own alternative.

Meanwhile environmentalists addressed the problem of agricultural runoff that was feeding the algae blooms. Fertilizer applied too heavily or on frozen ground drained into ditches, streams and the Maumee River whence it fertilized the algae in Lake Erie, causing the bloom. New industrial scale feed lots for poultry or cattle were the worst offenders. The Clean Water Act gives agriculture a privileged position. On March 7, U.S. EPA issued a “final” version of a federal Action Plan for reducing phosphorus loading into Lake Erie that reiterated a goal of reducing it 40 percent by 2025 and described methods to use. Unfortunately, the Action Plan is voluntary, so many environmentalists are skeptical. Moreover, President Trump’s budget calls for slashing federal assistance to clean the Great Lakes by 90 percent from $300 million to $30 million.

Author: Davis taught environmental policy at the University of Toledo. Email him at [email protected].

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