Last summer, huge hazardous algal blooms shut down drinking-water intakes along the Ohio River. Some experts say the mix of farm runoff, wastewater, and rising temperatures makes blooms like this more likely, leading to major health issues and expenditure of public dollars.
“It started to cover the river,” said local resident Ethan Wells. “It started looking like a neon [green] slime across the top of the river, and it was kind of eerie in a way to have the river alive like that.”
Wells has lived along the Ohio River for almost all of his 32 years. One day last August he noticed blue-green algae growing along the riverbank near his home in Sistersville, an hour south of Wheeling, West Virginia. He said he knew what it was from growing up on a farm with ponds prone to algae. Toxins from these blooms can cause serious health problems, and Wells said he began calling neighbors and friends to let them know they needed to stay away from the water.
That summer, more than 600 miles of toxic algae, known as cyanobacteria, were reported in West Virginia, Ohio, and all the way downriver in Illinois. Touching the stuff can be dangerous, causing rashes, lung and kidney problems. Previous algae blooms around the world have been deadly, so U.S. states have issued health warnings to avoid contact with the thick, stinky slime. But water treatment plants began to find algae in their intakes during last summer’s outbreak.
“At a certain point we actually enacted our contingency plan for the Huntington water system to switch over to an alternate source,” said Laura Martin, a spokesperson for West Virginia American Water.
Since then, Martin said developing ways to deal with toxic algae is the plant’s number one priority.
During the 2015 bloom, water plants used chemicals to ensure the water was safe to send to customers.
But treatment of algae is expensive. The water plant in Huntington spent $700,000 to deal with the one outbreak on the Ohio.
Yet without statewide or even regional regulations, all the plants can do is figure out ways to filter and treat the algae.
“The ultimate solution to controlling cyanobacterial blooms is control of the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water,” said Stanley States, an instructor at Texas A&M University. States travels around the country teaching water utilities how to deal with health threats like cyanobacteria.
Nutrients, especially phosphates, have been blamed for algae blooms in rivers and lakes all over the world. Phosphorous comes from sewage plants, lawns and particularly agriculture. There are some 250,000 farms in the Ohio River watershed.
“If they [farmers] use artificial fertilizers, they are supplemented with phosphates, [and] if a farmer uses natural fertilizers – dung – that’s loaded with phosphates,” said States. “Rains wash these phosphates into rivers, lakes” and other bodies of water.
When that phosphorus mixes with warm summer water, which is getting warmer as the climate changes, the combination creates the perfect recipe for cyanobacteria to bloom.
On Lake Erie toxic blooms have become something of a late summer ritual. The bloom was so big in 2014, nearly half million people lost their drinking water in Toledo, Ohio.
States said the Ohio River could also continue to have blooms, in part because all the locks and dams along the river create a series of lakes rather than a free-flowing river.
When the blooms took off on the Ohio River last summer, the state of Ohio was quick to respond.
“A lot of what we were doing on the Ohio River, we learned from our situation up in Toledo,” said Karl Gebhardt, deputy director of water resources with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
“We wanted to make sure that since they had never experienced this before, we were very quick in getting to them to make sure they were sampling the water before it came into the intake, and were implementing the proper treatment,” said Gebhardt.
Ohio has become a key state to watch when it comes to treating toxic blooms. Farm runoff in general has been largely unregulated. But last year, in an effort to reduce nutrient runoff, Ohio passed a law limiting when farmers can apply manure to farm fields.
“That was a big legislative achievement that the ag community, to their credit, bought into,” said Gebhardt.
Ohio isn’t going it alone. It’s working with other states around the Great Lakes to reduce nutrient runoff. Their collaborative goal? Cut this type of pollution 40 percent over the next decade.
Gebhardt said Ohio’s new runoff regulations apply to farms all over the state, so it’s also expected to keep pollution out of the Ohio River. So far, other river states haven’t taken these kinds of steps.
“Hopefully, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, would look at that and say, ‘Ok, do we feel confident in our program that we’re doing what we can do, or do we need to revisit that?’”
Gebhardt said state coordination could reduce pollution and prevent more toxic blooms all along the river. And, in the long run, that could save water treatment plants money, in addition to helping ensure safe drinking water for the five million people who depend on the Ohio.
This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Allegheny Front's Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.