2014 Webinar Recap: Managing Harmful Algal Bloom Impacts on Drinking Water and Public Health in the Great Lakes

On September 3, 2014, the NEMWI coordinated a webinar briefing for congressional staff and Great Lakes regional leaders and stakeholders, providing an overview of the public health liabilities around harmful algal bloom toxins in drinking water in the Great Lakes region and what states and localities are doing to address them. The early August toxin event in western Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of about a half million residents in Toledo and southeast Michigan for two days, an occurrence that raised important questions on water quality and public health. Webinar speakers included Dr. Jeff Reutter (Ohio State University); Michael Baker (Ohio EPA); Dr. Karen Sklenar (The Cadmus Group); Dr. Don Scavia (University of Michigan); and Dr. Michael Murray (National Wildlife Federation). They provided an overview of algal blooms, what causes them, and why we have them, especially in Lake Erie. The Webinar speakers indicated that the toxicity of algal bloom toxins is serious, exceeding that of cyanide. Speakers expressed concern over the lack of federal regulation around monitoring and addressing algal toxins, noting the challenges of planning and compliance in the context of state-by-state regulations for determining toxin levels, and detecting and treating toxins. Speakers did highlight other federal efforts to address harmful algal blooms, including the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Annex 4), the International Joint Commission, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, and the recently reauthorized S.1254 – Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2014, designed to help integrate assessment of algal blooms in the Great Lakes and, with other local, state and federal efforts, better prevent future negative public health effects. The speakers spoke about the importance of the International Joint Commission and Ohio’s Phosphorus Task Force II Team’s recommendations to lower levels of phosphorus entering Lake Erie and reduce future algal blooms. Given Lake Erie’s relatively short water retention times, efforts to reduce phosphorus would be rewarded with relatively quick recovery of the lake within the range of a few months to a few years.

The Senate Great Lakes Task Force Co-Chairs Senators Carl Levin and Senator Mark Kirk, Vice Chairs Senator Debbie Stabenow and Senator Rob Portman, and House Great Lakes Task Force Co-Chairs Congresswoman Miller, Congressman Dingell, Congressman Duffy, & Congresswoman Slaughter, served as honorary co-sponsors of the webinar.