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Ontario waste blamed for tainted Ohio drinking water
Debora Van Brenk, QMI Agency
First posted: Sunday, January 25, 2015 04:50 PM EST | Updated: Sunday, January 25, 2015 04:55 PM EST
LONDON, ONT. - America’s slime, Canada’s dirty little secret. Until now, that is.
Toxic algae that's made life miserable along Lake Erie's Ohio shore, forcing the shutdown of Toledo's water intake last summer, has links that reach far into Southwestern Ontario, scientists believe.
All of Southwestern Ontario ’s urban turf and vast farmland — including human sewage, animal waste and chemical fertilizers — drains into the Thames River, which empties into Lake St. Clair and into Erie, where monster algae blooms are so bad one morphed into a blob nearly as big as Prince Edward Island in 2011.
A genetic analysis of toxic algae found in Lake St. Clair, fed by farm and urban nutrients that enter the Thames, links it to the same family of algae that sometimes makes western Erie's water undrinkable.
"You can think of the Thames River as a sort of liquid fertilizer,” scientist Timothy Davis, from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., said.
In hot summer weather, the Thames kickstarts the growth of algae containing a bacterial toxin called microcystis, he explained.
Davis is part of a Canada-U.S. research steam studying the origins of the green sludge that's caused headaches for people and the environment along eastern Lake St. Clair and western Lake Erie.
Their work shows a cascade of events leading from Southwestern Ontario's farmbelt and cities to Ohio's drinking water intakes.
Phosphorus, a key ingredient in farm fertilizers, washes into the river into Lake St. Clair where it meets the algae "seeds" and boosts bacterial growth, he said.
From there, it multiplies to become slime, limited only by how much sun and nutrients it gets.
"Once the blooms are up and going, the blooms in Lake St. Clair can feed into (the Detroit River) and into Lake Erie and contribute to the blooms in Lake Erie," which are fed largely by farm run-off from the Maumee River in Ohio, Davis said.
Like the Thames, the Maumee also drains intensively farmed land into the Great Lakes.
And in a classic what-goes-around-comes-around scenario, the water from Southwestern Ontario can take a long route back home, since many centres draw drinking water from Erie.
Establishing the link, even if indirect, between members of the same algae family is important to figure out how to clean up one of eastern St. Clair and western Erie's ugliest and most persistent problems.
Meanwhile, efforts to clean up the Thames and prevent nutrient run-off are improving river quality, Brad Glasman, of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, said.
Phosphorus — used not just to fertilize crops, but also lawns — can remain for years in the soil and can dissolve in water, he said, so reducing erosion is a key way to stop it from getting near water.
Glasman said other factors, including municipal sewage, contribute to the problem.
Ontario cities, including London, have come under scrutiny before for discharging raw or only partly treated sewage into the Great Lakes during heavy rains that overwhelm their sewer systems.
"We can all do better," Glasman said.
deb.vanbrenk@sunmedia.ca
Western Lake Erie is green with monster algae blooms in this NASA satellite image taken last August as the scourge took off in the summer heat. Lake St. Clair, above Erie, is the same. Scientists believe they’ve found a genetic link between toxic algae in the two lakes, and Southwestern Ontario’s Thames River — which drains into the system of lakes — is a contributing culprit.

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