When toxic algae left 500,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio, area without drinking water for two days this month, one of Kentucky’s top environmental regulators took notice.
“I was sitting there on a Friday evening, hearing various things from various counterparts, and I was thinking this can happen in my state,” recalled R. Bruce Scott, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. “What are we doing to be prepared?”
First thing the following Monday, Scott put that question to his staff, and Kentucky officials have been working since to get answers by combing through documents filed by many of the state’s 467 public drinking water systems, and reaching out to some with questions.
The inquiry steps up Kentucky’s response to its emerging problem of toxic algae blooms, first documented in the state in late 2012 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Taylorsville Lake.
The review puts drinking water safety front and center, in addition to state and Army Corps concerns about recreational exposure to blue-green algae — a cyanobacteria that can produce toxins causing skin or eye irritation, nausea, flu-like symptoms and liver damage.
The blooms occur with sunlight, slow-moving water and too many nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They’re made worse by pollution from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and runoff from fertilized farms and lawns.
For the second year in a row, Kentucky and the corps have issued recreational advisories on some lakes because of the blooms. In all, 10 Kentucky lakes carry the warnings, including Barren River, Nolin River, Green River, Rough River and Guist Creek lakes.
None is closed to swimming, fishing or boating. Instead, authorities advise not swallowing lake water and washing well after swimming.
Source water concerns
In response to a Kentucky Open Records request, state officials acknowledged 10 public drinking water systems serving thousands of customers in Kentucky are drawing water from lakes with algae advisories.
They include the Shelbyville Water and Sewer Commission, Edmonson County Water District and the Grayson County Water District.
State officials said they know of no immediate drinking water threats from algae anywhere in Kentucky. And officials with the Louisville Water Co. — which provides water to about 850,000 people in Louisville and parts of Bullitt, Nelson, Oldham, Shelby and Spencer counties — said they do not have any issues with toxic algae.
But state officials said they want all Kentucky drinking water providers to be ready to handle algae problems, and that is why they are taking a closer look at Kentucky’s drinking water systems.
State officials acknowledged even more systems could be at potential risk, where monitoring for toxic algae has not yet occurred. And Scott said there could be gaps in technology or expertise at some utilities, especially smaller systems with fewer resources.
“We need to make sure we are properly educating and informing our smaller systems of what they need to do,” Scott said. “We are asking what can and should be done to make sure we are looking at everything that needs to be looked at.”
If Kentucky water utilities don’t have procedures for analyzing their source water for the different types of toxic algae, state officials recommend developing some.
Scott said they want to make sure all systems understand what treatment methods work, and have an emergency response plan if their water becomes unsafe for drinking.
Rural water systems contacted by The Courier-Journal said their customers don’t need to worry.
“We are staying on top of it,” said Tom Dole, general manager of the Shelbyville Water and Sewer Commission, which draws water from Guist Creek Lake.
“We are not experiencing … anything like the conditions that we read (about) and saw in Toledo,” said Kevin Shaw, general manager of the Grayson County Water District, which draws from Rough River Lake. “You could look at the water and see the algae. That is not the case in our reservoir.”
Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management surveyed its 33 public water utilities that rely on lakes in the wake of Toledo’s crisis, said Barry Sneed, IDEM spokesman. Bloomington’s water system was concerned about algae, so new samples were taken but no toxins or algae were detected, he added.
“We plan to keep in contact with systems that may be susceptible to algal blooms and if problems arise, we will work with the system to ensure treatment is adjusted to any address possible algal toxins,” he said.
Besides ensuring drinking water utilities are prepared, experts say Kentucky needs to do more to prevent the blooms.
“We need to step up our game,” said Gail Brion, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky with an expertise in water-borne illnesses and water treatment. She said the state needs to better curb the nitrogen and phosphorous that gets into waterways from sewage, animal waste, fertilizers and other sources.
“Once a bloom has happened, it is too late,” she said. “The toxins persist in the environment months after formation, so even if the algae leave, the toxins can remain.”
Scott said Kentucky regulators know they need better control of nutrient pollution and his department is working on a nutrient-management plan to do just that.
But environmentalists worry the state won’t adopt stringent enough pollution limits and that state environmental agency budgets will continue, further putting Kentucky communities at risk of a drinking water crises.
“We need limits on pollutants and inspectors on the ground,” said Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, which has joined other groups in suing the EPA over nutrient pollution in the Mississippi Basin, including Kentucky and Indiana. Otherwise, she said, Kentucky residents “are rolling the dice” on safe drinking water.
When it comes to cyanobacteria, it quickly gets complicated.
The toxin that wreaked havoc in northern Ohio — microcystin — can be produced by a variety of blue-green algae, not just the Microcystic found in Lake Erie. And other types of blue-green algae have different toxins that can cause health problems.
Toledo draws water from a shallow area of Lake Erie that became inundated by blue-green algae that produced microcystin, said Greg Boyer, chair of the chemistry department at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in New York.
The city’s water utility had no ability to switch to another intake, where there was less blue-green algae, said Boyer, who is also acting director for the Great Lakes Research Consortium, a research network.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency had warned Toledo about problems with its aging treatment system in June, writing to the city’s mayor of “the precarious condition” of the system and its “imminent vulnerability to failure.”
Boyer said utilities should monitor for the types of blue-green algae that can produce toxins. He said equipment can be bought for $5,000 to $25,000 that can provide a continuous flow of toxic algae data.
“Then, at what point do you worry about it? We deal, in most cases, where the blooms have to be fairly thick,” he said. “When you can see it.”
Further complicating matters, Scott said, is that the EPA has yet to establish a uniform testing method for the algae toxins, or safe drinking water standards. EPA is working on that, but “we believe they need to accelerate their decision making based on what we are seeing in Toledo and other places, including Kentucky,” Scott said.
The Louisville Water Co. has an algae response plan that involves close tracking of algae in the Ohio River when it may be present: April to November.
The company’s aquatic ecologist, Roger Tucker, checks water samples through a microscope to determine what types of algae may be in the water, and whether they might cause any problems.
So far, the only algae problems Louisville Water has experienced comes from those that can make water taste or smell bad, Tucker said. This year, he said, there has been hardly any algae in the company’s river water.
Rivers are also less likely to have algae blooms because their water doesn’t get stagnant, said the water company’s chief scientist, Rengao Song. Sediment that often turns the Ohio brown blocks sunlight, preventing algae from growing, he said.
The water company’s Crescent Hill Treatment Plant is well-equipped to remove algae and any algae-caused toxins or chemicals that cause taste and odor changes, with processes that include absorptive activated carbon, he said.
Louisville also gets 30 percent of its water from wells deep under the Ohio River, where sand and gravel naturally filter tiny contaminants, including algae. That water feeds the company’s B.E. Payne treatment plant.
The water company is now working with engineering consultants on preliminary engineering for riverbank filtration for its Crescent Hill plant. Such a system should have no risk from toxic algae, Song said.
“The Louisville Water Co. has never detected any algae cells in its riverbank filtration water,” Song said.
Reach reporter James Bruggers at (502) 582-4645 or on Twitter @jbruggers.
Kentucky water systems that draw from lakes with toxic algae advisories:
• Shelbyville Water and Sewer Commission (Guist Creek Lake)
• Springfield Water Works (Willisburg Lake)
• Glasgow Water Co. and Scottsville Water Department (Barren River Lake)
• Edmonson County Water District (Nolin River Lake)
• Columbia/Adair County Regional Water Commission and Campbellsville Municipal Water (Green River Lake)
• Grayson County Water District and Litchfield Water Works (Rough River Lake)
• Mount Sterling Water Works (Greenbriar Creek Reservoir)
Source: Kentucky Division of Water