How Toledo Fought Back Against Lake Erie Algae

After a 2014 water crisis in Toledo, which left 500,000 customers without water, the city knew it needed to respond better to Lake Erie algae blooms. Here's how monitoring, treatment and public relations efforts have kept the city's water safe.
How Toledo Fought Back Against Lake Erie Algae
The filter gallery at the City of Toledo's water treatment plant.

Interested in Odor Control?

Get Odor Control articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Odor Control + Get Alerts

Despite the worst recorded algal bloom in Lake Erie this past summer, the City of Toledo drinking water system did not experience toxic microcystin like that which plagued the utility a year ago.

But if it had, Toledo’s Division of Water Treatment would have been ready. Fully committed to preventing a recurrence, the utility worked with Ohio EPA and other parties to expand monitoring of the lake water, develop preventive methods at the intake and treatment plant systems, and bolster communications to outside communities and citizens. 

“We planned so we would be better prepared if an algal bloom was brought into our intake again,” says Andy McClure, plant administrator at Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, of the 2014 episodes.

2014 do-not-drink advisory
Toxic algae — the product of excess phosphorus runoff — concentrated in the western end of Lake Erie during summer 2014, turning the lake into pea-green soup. For close to three days, microcystin in Toledo's water exceeded federal limits. The city issued warnings to its customers and advised them to use bottled water. Consumer confidence began to erode.

Determined to keep the do-not-drink advisory from happening again, Toledo came out swinging.

“We now have three levels of monitoring,” explains Chuck Campbell, commissioner for water plant operations, “in the sky, on the lake and in our system.”

Closely monitored
NOAA satellites monitor lake conditions and algae buildup from several hundred miles up, while a network of buoys record and report data on the lake’s surface. Toledo maintains sondes (remote water-quality monitoring instruments) in the lake, at its intake crib and at the low service pumping station, with 24/7 readings every 10 or 20 minutes.

“Ohio EPA, the Great Lakes Observation System, plus university research teams all have joined Toledo water treatment professionals in monitoring lake water conditions to provide early warning of potential harmful algal blooms that would affect our drinking water supplies,” says Campbell.

At the plant, intake water samples are taken at least once a day, with testing of all daily samples timed according to water characteristics. When conditions warrant, testing is increased. Toledo's testing protocol exceeds recommendations from the 2015 Ohio EPA HAB Strategy.

A new automated analytical instrument — paid for by an Ohio EPA grant — performs the approved method: enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay tests (ELISA).

“The new instrument saves us time, and is very precise,” says McClure. “It provides us with information on how to run the treatment process, and it’s freed up our staff to perform other necessary analyses.

“We are fully in step with Ohio EPA,” he adds. “They have been supportive — financially and through consistent messaging.”

Being prepared
In what surely is a model of emergency preparedness, Toledo took bold steps to make sure employees were ready for emergencies while protecting the treatment process from more algae incursions.

“All employees participated in national incident training (NIMS), as well as tabletop exercises and functionality training with Ohio EPA,” says Campbell.

Toledo recruited a blue-ribbon panel of national experts, utility officials, consultants and regulators to advise on treatment process changes, and made numerous changes and adjustments at the plant.

“We looked at where the plant is now and where it needs to be in the future,” says McClure.

Preventive steps included using potassium permanganate to oxidize algae. “We fed it at the intake crib,” says McClure. “We already use it for zebra mussel control, so we were able to use existing screw conveyors and pumps.”

To be prepared, Toledo quadrupled its ability to feed potassium permanganate and powdered activated carbon (PAC). A new PAC feeder was also added at the plant. “For a couple of weeks last summer, we were feeding as much as 24 parts per million,” says McClure. “Our daily chemical costs that normally averages $17,000 per day increased to $44,000 a day.”

A new disinfection system also came into play in the battle against algae.

“We used to have a single-point chlorination system,” explains McClure. “But five to six years ago, we planned for a new multipoint system. That went online in June 2015 and gave us additional oxidation capability ahead of the filters.”

Telling the story
Toledo worked just as hard to improve communications and rebuild confidence. A new dashboard on its website presents daily water quality to the general public using five conditions: Clear, Watch, Caution, Pre-School Advisory and Do Not Drink.

The staff made special efforts to communicate with key audience groups. Immediately after the first toxic events, the utility established communications with the Regional Water Quality Advisory Board, and local and state emergency planning teams reached out to the health care community to share information.

“We became more available,” says Campbell.

Toledo invited and hosted more tours of the plant, and the utility issued regular press releases describing conditions and preventive measures. Liaison was maintained with local legislators.

“The media were great,” says Campbell. “They provided good, accurate coverage and gave us a lot of public service announcements.”

The future
Although 2015 was the worst on the lake for algae bloom and the biomass was larger than any since 2001, Toledo recorded no microcystin amounts greater than 4.5 parts per billion at its intake crib — well within safe limits. 

“We had no microcystin in our tap water but did have an abundance of total organic carbons from heavy summer rains,” says McClure.

But the origin of the problem remains. Campbell and McClure point out that, according to the International Joint Commission on the Great lakes, phosphorus discharges to Lake Erie must be reduced by 40 percent for the breakpoint to be reached.

“We haven’t seen a reduction in the loading to the lake,” says Campbell.

Still, they feel Toledo will be even more prepared for toxic algae in 2016 than it was in 2015. “We’ve optimized our processes,” says McClure. “We’re more comfortable with the system. We’re not letting down our guard, that’s for sure.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.