When we talked to residents about what it was like to have no tap water, it didn't seem so bad. But when we looked into the far-reaching implications of the crisis, shit got a little scarier.
Screen grabs via Fox 8 News
"Our water is in trouble" was the ominous threat Toledo, Ohio, had to deal with this past weekend, after Mayor D. Michael Collins declared on Friday that the city's water was infected with toxins from algae-infected Lake Erie and unsafe to drink or bathe in. As a result of the scare, the people of Toledo thronged in parking lots of high schools across the city, loading bottles of water into their cars.
It was the highest-profile American city in a while to face this kind of toxicity in its water, and while it's not necessarily time to get all Doomsday Prepper in response to this, we all might want to take a long, hard look at the event some Toledo residents called "Aquapocalypse."
People in California, where there's large-scale agriculture, and a big problem with water scarcity, should pay special attention.
"It was definitely a crisis," Amy Spradlin, a dietetic technician at Toledo Hospital told us. "The kitchen was chaos; the patients and babies couldn't get bathed. Food was minimal. We had a three-day emergency meal plan, but it's never been needed longer than a few hours. Everyone was just really annoyed."
But when the water runs out, things are obviously going to take a dystopian turn. It's not often that the supply of drinking water in a developed country suddenly gets threatened, although natural and man-made water shortages are plenty common in Third World nations.
"Lines were out the door," Spradlin said of the panic. "People were driving to other states and counties for water. I saw one guy selling bottled water out of his back yard for $25 a case."
While it hit home this past week for Toledo, it's been a story years in the making for everyone whose water comes from western Lake Eerie. The authorities have known there's been a menacing presence floating just beneath the surface, and it wasn't kept secret. Last year almost the exact same thing happened for a couple days in nearby Carroll Township.
As before, the immediate threat wasn't algae in the water, nor the bacteria that thrive in the algae bloom, but the toxin known as microcystin that shows up as a consequence of the bacteria. As opposed to a parasite that can be boiled or chemically neutralized, microcystin is like something from a comic book: impervious to most treatments available to consumers, and made more concentrated by hot water.
And can it kill you? You bet. In 1996, a similar situation caused 26 deaths in Brazil, which is all the more reason that hoarding clean water was more than just a precaution.
"I bought the last supply at the store I stopped at," local radio personality Becky Shock told us. "Really more of an inconvenience than anything else. Nothing to panic over. You just had to brush your teeth with bottled water, take care of pets with bottled water, and wait for it all to pass. Restaurants were closed for the most part, though some of them could run using strictly bottled water and so they stayed open; some bars stayed open. After the first 12 hours, stores started getting shipments back in."
To suddenly be told that the water is undrinkable produces an emergency that, to all appearances, seems like a drought, when in fact the problem is agricultural pollution. Nutrient pollution, a consequence of large-scale agriculture, dumps high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen into the air and water, according to information that's been on the EPA's website for at least two years.
According to a study in the journal Microbial Ecology, the effect isn't tied exclusively to Lake Eerie. Fertilizer runoff, particularly the heavy-duty chemical fertilizers responsible for the insane crop yields we in the industrial world have come to depend on, have environmental consequences wherever they're used. The increased fertility might sound like a plus for biodiversity, but it isn't. The study points to evidence that "high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in freshwaters may favor the growth of toxic Mycrocystic strains over nontoxic ones." In other words there's a clear link between fertilizer runoff and toxicity.
Still, since safe water from a few hours away could be schlepped into Toledo without much trouble, its safe to say the carnage never escalated to Walking Dead levels. In fact, Toldeo's emergency was an opportunity, Shock pointed out, to observe the community coming together.
"There were water distribution points set up for free, and the National Guard brought in trucks. Lots of volunteers, especially with the Red Cross, were manning the distribution centers, and the United Way and the Red Cross were delivering water to residents who weren't physically able to get out to pick it up. People went to the Humane Society and donated water, because you were supposed to keep pets away from it. And the neighboring Jerusalem Township Fire Department donated water to the Toledo Zoo 'for their water-loving residents, like the penguins.'"
While things never really went south for Toledo, places like California wouldn't fare so well—and yes, climate change could be a factor. A report prepared by the University of California, Santa Cruz after studying the effects of rising temperatures on California's heavily agricultural Central Valley refers to cyanobacteria and their associated toxins as "growing contaminants of concern." It points out that with global warming, "cyanobacteria [have] a direct competitive advantage as they generally grow better at higher temperature than do other phytoplankton species such as diatoms and green algae."
California's existing drought, in combination with a toxicity-related shortage, could be a much bigger problem than this has been.
Still, in Toledo some people brushed off the crisis because the effects were hard to see. "Everybody thought they couldn't buy water, but they could get it everywhere," said resident Frank Saucedo. "It was really stupid."
Although the water has been given the go-ahead for the time being, Spradlin isn't jumping in. "We can shower and drink it, but I don't trust it yet. It's still green."