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Amid Lake Erie's Algal Bloom, Toledo's Water Woes Continue


Four hundred thousand people in Toledo, Ohio and surrounding areas along the border with Michigan are without water for a second day. The ban is due to a huge algae bloom in Lake Erie where the area gets its water supply. The algae creates a dangerous toxin called microcystin that can cause diarrhea and vomiting. We have more from Michigan radio's Tracy Samilton.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: We're on a boat hastily chartered by the National Wildlife Federation on our way to see the massive algae bloom floating near the city of Toledo. It's hot and it's a pretty day, but the water looks oddly bright green.That's the algae. The blooms have been appearing for a couple of decades, but they're getting worse. Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes says he and other officials have been worried about this for a long time.

LARRY SYKES: What we've experienced here shows us this is a dangerous situation.

SAMILTON: Collin O'Mara has been president of the National Wildlife Federation for just one month. But he's seen things like this before in his former job as Delaware's Secretary of National Resources, just not this bad. When we get to the water intake, someone dips a glass into the water. It comes up thick with the algae. O'Mara says the algae is being nurtured by nutrients flowing into the lake - from manure from large-scale animal farms, waste water treatment plants and lawn fertilizer.

O'MARA: And a lot of these folks might live miles away from the water itself, but you know that extra fertilizer you're putting on to get your grass just the right color? - that's contributing to this problem.

SAMILTON: Oh, and one more thing that's contributing to the problem. Scientists say climate change is warming the water in Lake Erie, and that's helping the algae grow too. The blooms can pop up anywhere in the lake. This one just happened to surround the water intake crib for Toledo. And when alarming levels of toxins showed up in the water, people were told to stop drinking it. And at first - also no bathing, even brushing their teeth using the water. So, you'd think people would be panicking. But lines at Ohio National Guard distribution centers for water have been orderly. Things are pretty calm in Bedford Township, too. That's one of the little towns across the border in Michigan that also gets its water from Toledo. Pat Haines is swinging by city hall's makeshift water emergency center to pick up some bottles for her elderly neighbors.

PAT HAINES: And we have a lot of older people and everybody takes care of everybody. So, if they need something, we'll see to it.


JASON SHEPHERD: How you doing?


SHEPHERD: You have nay containers with you?

MAN: No, do I have to bring some.

SHEPHERD: Well, you could, but we do have a couple left there, you can grab a gallon of water. It's drinking water, yep.

SAMILTON: That's County Commissioner Jason Shepherd. He says in the last two days about 3,000 people have come through town hall to pick up bottled water and to fill up big plastic containers. Lots of groups are contributing water, and lots of people are helping distribute it, including the Boy Scouts. Blake Alsbach is age 11, like so many others here in Bedford, he's approaching the situation with a level had.

BLAKE ALSBACH: We want to help out everybody. We want everybody to keep calm and not panic.

SAMILTON: That's the same message being delivered by Ohio Governor John Kasich who gave a press conference about the crisis in Toledo today, and it appears people are listening. But although levels of the toxin seem to be dropping, no one knows when the municipal water will be safe. And there's a good month and a half of summer storms and hot weather ahead. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

WESTERVELT: Michigan Radio's Kate Wells contributed to that story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.