Toledo 411: Fast Facts on Water Pollution

Talk about a scary post to read at 1:21 am.. (Via Facebook)

Desperate times call for desperate measures…such as when the city issues an “URGENT NOTICE” on Facebook in the middle of the night, warning you not to drink the water—even if boiled!—and you find yourself high-tailing it to the 7-11 at 2 a.m. to buy all the bottled water you can carry before it sells out across Toledo in the morning.

Yes, while filtered tap water may be the general eau de choice environmentally speaking, disasters like the recent contamination in western Lake Erie leave us with little choice but to hit the proverbial bottle.

For those who missed the water contamination headlines: This month an enormous toxic algal bloom contaminated the city of Toledo’s water supply, leaving more than 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, themselves without safe drinking water. (Wanna go deeper than the headlines? For the deep science on what happened in Lake Erie, check out this new research on the role of agricultural runoff in Lake Erie pollution).

And it’s not just Lake Erie. At the start of this year, 300,000 West Virginians couldn’t get clean tap water after a major chemical spill. In late spring, Portland, Oregon sold out of water bottles and many restaurants shuttered during a E. coli-induced boil-order.

From algal bloom to E. coli, it can be quite a mess out there. To help shed some light on these various water-woe news items, we’ve put together a brief cheat sheet of contamination lingo:

  • Algal bloom: Algae is an important part of life in most habitats—but you know the saying, moderation in all things…An algal bloom is an unusually giant amount of algae concentrated in water. In addition to creating a spooky pea-green color, these proliferations of excess algae can cause a spate of ecological and public health issues, from sucking out all the oxygen in water and harming aquatic species, to serving as a breeding ground for salmonella. Algal bloom is often caused by excess phosphorus and nitrogen, which is in turn largely a result of farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment. (More from Alliance for the Great Lakes.)
  • CSOs: Combined Sewer Overflow occurs when a sewage treatment system is flooded during events like storms, and untreated sewage and stormwater pour into the waterways without first being treated. More than 24 billion gallons of this overflow water is dumped into the Great Lakes every year. (More at Alliance for the Great Lakes.)
  • E. coli: Escherichia coli is a fecal coliform bacteria found in human and animal intestines. Usually the result of sewage in the water, this stuff is not only super-gross to swim with but also rife with disease potential. More via the EPA.
  • Effluent — The liquid waste from a factory, or water leaving a sewage treatment plant. (More via the USGS.)
  • Eutrophication: What happens when phosphorus and nitrogen get crazy bad, and turn nice clear water into murky water, with excessive plant growth and decay. Usually spurred by agriculture, industry, and sewage disposal, it can result in tainted drinking water as well as ecosystem damage, and costs the U.S. an approximately $2.2 billion annually. (More via the Nature Conservancy.)
  • Hypoxia: When water has excessively low oxygen levels, often caused by excess nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. (More via the EPA.)
  • Nonpoint-source pollution: As opposed to a specific entry point like a water pipe, this contamination originates from a broad area, such as from chemically sprayed cropland runoff, and enters the water diffusely over a large area. (More via the USGS.)
  • Watershed: An area of land where all the water beneath it or that drains off of it goes into the same place. (More via the EPA.)

Want more related verbiage? The USGS has a much more exhaustive glossary here.

Wanna help turn the tide on water pollution? One Green Thing you can do is check out the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ water quality tips.