Testifying before Congress, Toledo mayor calls for full federal attention on water quality

The mayor of Toledo, Ohio, called Wednesday for the federal government to devote full attention to improving water quality in America's lakes and rivers, describing the toxic algae blooms that tainted his city's water supply this summer as a danger "doomed to be repeated."

Mayor Michael Collins appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee for the first time after microcystin toxins in Lake Erie fouled the tap water for 400,000 people in Ohio and Michigan for two days in August.

Continue Reading Below

He said the "full force" of the governments of the United States and Canada, along the level of an executive order, is needed to address what he described as an international problem. More than 80 percent of the water in Lake Erie comes from the upper Great Lakes via the Detroit River, which helps form the U.S.-Canadian border.

"Don't give this lip service. It's a canary in the coal mine," Collins said. "If we forget what happened in Toledo, it is doomed to be repeated."

The water emergency that struck residents in parts of northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan put a spotlight on the lake's algae problem, which has been growing for more than decade, and drew attention to Toledo's aging water treatment system and how cities monitor their drinking water.

The mayor, a political independent, called on Congress to devote more research funding to more fully understand the causes, whether it's because of a new formulation of fertilizers or invasive species in the lake. The Environmental Protection Agency also should move quickly to set a federal water quality standard for algae blooms, he said.

He said agriculture runoff likely plays a role, but little else is known.

"Toxic algal blooms are not new, we have as a nation failed in studying the reasons why they continue and in taking steps to reduce or eliminate their occurrence," Collins said.

Ohio lawmakers have been looking at ways to improve water quality, such as by banning farmers from spreading manure on top of frozen or saturated fields. Wednesday's hearing in Washington focused on the role of federal government and on promoting voluntary conservation.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, urged Agriculture Department officials to give Ohio access to $13 million in federal grant money to implement conservation partnerships. That application is currently under consideration. "Ohio's Western Lake Erie Basin is a critical source of our state's drinking water and the lifeblood of our agricultural industry," he said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who chairs the committee, called the Toledo water problems a "stark wake-up call" to the nation's crisis on water quality.


Follow Hope Yen on Twitter, http://twitter.com/hopeyen1