Could an algae bloom, like the one that caused the city of Toledo to issue an advisory to not drink the water, happen in Archbold?
In short, yes.
“It could happen to any surface water supply anywhere in the world,” Dennis Howell, village administrator, said Monday.
But, he added, the odds of a similar event happening in Archbold are extremely low.
Howell knows what he’s talking about.
He came to the village administrator office after years at the Archbold Water Treatment Plant, and he holds a Class IV water treatment plant operator license.
Only about 150 persons in the state of Ohio hold the Class IV license.
Three are in Archbold: Howell; Scott Schultz, water plant superintendent; and Jeff Neuenschwander, assistant superintendent.
Blue Green Algae
Algae describes a large group of mainly aquatic organisms that contain chlorophyll.
Algae uses light as an energy source to digest nutrients.
Howell said a sub-group of algae is blue-green algae. Most can cause taste and odor problems in municipal water supplies, but a very small number can produce a toxin.
In the Toledo case, a growth of algae called a bloom occurred around the city water intake in Lake Erie.
The algae in that bloom produced a toxin, microcystin, which was discovered in finished water produced by the city treatment plant.
Weather conditions didn’t help.
There was little wind on the lake to cause wave action that would break up the bloom, and what wind there was pushed the algae to the intake point, called a “crib.”
Archbold has had algae blooms before, but none produced toxins.
At worst, Archbold blooms create taste and odor problems, which the water treatment plant treats to remedy or prevent.
Howell said Archbold has several factors working in its favor.
First, the village has two above ground reservoirs where raw water, taken from the Tiffin River, can be stored before entering the plant.
There has never been an algae bloom in both reservoirs at the same time.
When there’s an algae bloom in one, plant opera- tors can draw water from the other.
Howell said water plant workers routinely send samples off for analysis, looking at the number and types of algae present.
Village water treatment plant operators, who have a combined experience of 120 years, are often able to see an algae bloom coming by the smell or appearance of the water, he said.
And because the reservoirs are small compared to Lake Erie, special treatment chemicals can be added directly to the reservoirs to battle an algae bloom.
There are, however, issues surrounding the microcystin toxin.
For example, Howell said no clinical studies have ever been done to determine exactly what the safe and unsafe levels of microcystin in water are.
The World Health Organization set a limit of one part microcystin per billion parts of drinking water. He called the 1 ppb figure an arbitrary number.
Howell said he’d like to know if there’s a “safety factor” built into the 1 ppb figure.
For example, is the actual danger level 100 times, 10,000 times, or a million times greater than that?
Further, press reports say scientists have not selected a standard test for microcystin. There are three methods in use.
So, based on an arbitrary number without proper scientific research and without a standard testing methodology, an incident that affected a region of 400,000 people, and had a negative economic impact of untold millions of dollars occurred.
There are those who lay the blame for algae problems in Lake Erie at the feet of the farm community.
Chemicals used by farmers on fields are blamed for putting nutrients into Lake Erie, which in turn feeds the algae.
Howell said there is no argument from the farm community that 99% of the chemical nutrients are agricultural in nature.
But, he pointed out in the past 20 years, farmers have adopted a number of practices to minimize their impact, such as low-till and no-till farming, and the creation of grass filter strips between fields and waterways.
One thing is for sure. During the Toledo water crisis, the Archbold water system was never in jeopardy.
“If you do a good job of controlling algae, you won’t have microcystin,” Howell said.