Dec 9, 2019
Toledo’s residents have gotten used to Lake Erie turning bright green during the summer months, while folks in Cleveland often see their summer water turn an ominous brown. The Great Lakes, which include Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, are the world’s largest single source of fresh water. Lake Erie alone provides the drinking water for 11 million people. But climate change, combined with runoff from factory farms, is more and more making that water undrinkable.
Over the summer, Toledo Mayor Kapszukiewicz says the city’s “Maumee River looks like the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day, the only difference is we didn’t put any dye in it.” The bright green color is from an “algal bloom”—a huge mass of algae, small plant-like creatures that live in the water, and bacteria. This summer, the green bloom covered 620 square miles at its peak—a green mass twice the size of Chicago, so big it was visible to astronauts on the space station.
These blooms aren’t just strange-looking. Some species that make up the bloom produce toxic chemicals. In 2014, the bloom was so bad that the city declared a water emergency, telling residents the water had become poisonous to drink.
Algal blooms form because there is food in the water for the algae and bacteria to eat, in particular, fertilizer and manure that run off industrial farms. This past year had the most rainfall for Ohio since statistics began in 1895. More rainfall, due to climate change, means more runoff from farmlands, means more fertilizer into the lake.
Lake Erie is both the shallowest and the southernmost of the Great Lakes. These two factors make it the warmest. Since Lake Erie is shallow, higher temperatures in the area make the lake warm up more quickly than a deeper lake. And warmer temperatures also allow algae and bacteria to grow more easily.
After the algae have “bloomed,” they then die and sink to the bottom of the lake, where the rotting of their bodies uses up the oxygen in the water. The bottom water then becomes a “Dead Zone,” where fish and other creatures can’t go without suffocating. The lack of oxygen in the water also can bring other chemicals into the water.
Since Lake Erie is shallow, this Dead Zone water can be pushed around by the winds. Lately, the Lake Erie Dead Zone has been pushed over the water intakes for Cleveland—leading brown, smelly water to come into their system.
Industrial farms need fertilizer and produce manure. But they use it to maximize their profit, regardless of its consequences for Lake Erie drinking water. And climate change, which, in the end, is driven by the capitalists, is bringing more of this fertilizer into the lake—choking it off and poisoning it.