THE BLOG
10/02/2014 05:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Algal Blooms Threaten Public Health, Great Lakes Mayors Fight Back

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a press conference during the Summit on Drinking Water Protection at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

No city can stand alone against Great Lakes water quality issues. This became clear when in August an algal bloom off the coast of Toledo introduced a toxin, called Microcystis, into the city's water supply causing a two-day drinking water ban, sending shockwaves through cities reliant on the Great Lakes basin.

In response, last week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel convened mayors from four states and two Canadian provinces, connected by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, for a Summit on Drinking Water Protection. Shedd Aquarium hosted the summit focused on discussions around phosphorus pollution, algal blooms and the complex set of regulations and legal frameworks that govern water quality protection on our lakes.

Concerns about drinking water pollution were forefront on the agenda, because the Toledo incident demonstrated that we are not adequately prepared to respond to toxic contamination. There are no response protocols, no strategies for remediation and not even an agreed-upon method of detecting the presence of the toxin in effect. These are key gaps which Mayor Emanuel said he hopes will be addressed through the partnerships formed at the summit.

The Impact of Algae
Worries about phosphorus pollution in the Great Lakes hit a fever pitch in the 1960s when runoff from detergents, urban sewage and agriculture loaded the lakes with nutrients, causing blue-green algae to bloom out of control in Lake Erie and parts of Lake Michigan. Governments and citizens responded, and through implementation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in the 1970s and 80s, algal blooms declined by nearly 90 percent.

Now the algal blooms are back. So, what happened? It's a complex problem with no easy answer. Growth of population, industry and agriculture has boosted nutrient pollution just as the changes from the Water Quality Agreement have reduced it. Throw in the effect of invasive species and degradation of the aquatic habitats which act as a natural buffer for nutrient loading, and the blooms are back and bigger than ever.

Fighting Back the Blooms
To solve a problem this big, we need a comprehensive solution that involves all of the important players. The new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan, released by the Obama Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with the meeting, was designed to do just that.

The five year strategy lays out critical steps for protecting water quality, managing invasive species and restoring habitat.

Most importantly, the Action Plan recognizes that protecting and restoring natural habitats is just as critical as changing human behavior. It's an approach that our Shedd field researchers and citizen scientists know well. Through fieldwork, research and volunteer activities, we will help contribute to a fuller understanding of how this vast system can be conserved and protected for future generations.

Cities have the potential to be innovators in reducing phosphorus pollution and responding to threats to Great Lakes water quality, and after last week's Summit, mayors of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence are ready to take up the charge.

To learn more about Great Lakes habitats and what you can do to conserve them, visit www.sheddaquarium.org/GreatLakes.