Algae update: Fixing bad-tasting drinking water already expensive

[10th, May 2014] It’s anyone’s guess just how bad the algae blooms might be this year, but the city already is dealing with a related problem: bad-tasting drinking water. The city of Columbus has spent $97,000 since early February to get rid of the off-taste and unpleasant odor of drinking water pulled from… Hoover Reservoir. But the battle against the toxic algae causing the problems — which so far has cost $820,000 and generated 1,700 customer complaints — might not be over.

 Winter’s deep freeze might have killed most of Hoover’s cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, but lingering concerns meant city officials still had to treat the 20-billion- gallon water supply with truckloads of powdered carbon. The last treatments were on Feb. 14.

“When it got really cold, with less sunlight, the algae didn’t reproduce and died,” said Matt Steele, Columbus’ water-supply and -treatment coordinator.

Dead algae smells, said Rod Dunn, manager of the city’s water-quality-assurance laboratory. “We were treating the leftover from when they died.”

Experts aren’t sure how bad the algae will be this year.

“It’s kind of like a horse race to tell how things work out,” said Thomas Bridgeman, an associate professor of ecology at the University of Toledo.

“How the (algae bloom) turns out depends more on what happens between now and July than what has already happened this spring,” Bridgeman said. “And a heavy downpour that causes surface runoff would have a more detrimental effect than a gentle rainfall that soaks into the surface.”

That’s because the algae feed on nutrients from fertilizers that get washed into bodies of water with runoff.

The specific strain of algae also is important. The city blamed its Hoover problems on an algae called anabaena, which produces earthy and pondlike flavors and odors. Anabaena often secretes an “ oily” substance that creates an odor in the water.

“Based on the species of algae we see, certain types produce toxins and others don’t,” Steele said. “Some years we’ll have blooms that don’t smell or taste. It varies from year to year.”

Columbus is the one of several Ohio communities spending money on the algae problem.

The city plans to install a $70 million ozone-treatment system at its Morse Road water plant, Steele said. Upgrades also are planned for the city’s other supplies: Griggs and O’Shaughnessy dams and the newest, the John R. Doutt plant in northwestern Delaware County.

Celina, in western Ohio, spends about $450,000 a year to control algae problems at Grand Lake St. Marys. Farmers there are now required to limit the amount of manure they spread in fields.

Toledo spent $3 million last year to keep Lake Erie’s toxic algae out of the city’s drinking water.

In 2012, algae toxins were detected at 13 water-treatment plants, including those in Toledo, Celina, Findlay, Lima and Lake and Clermont counties. None of the toxins contaminated drinking water.

Some algae strains can produce liver and nerve toxins that can sicken humans and kill pets and other animals.

Enough of the liver toxin microcystin was found in Grand Lake St. Marys that the state warned people not to touch the water, take boats out or eat fish they catch there.

In September, the Carroll Water and Sewer District in Ottawa County became the first in Ohio to exceed the state’s threshold of 1 part per billion of microcystin, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reported. It measured 3.56.

Last month, the district installed a $125,000 treatment system using ozone to reduce toxins, superintendent Henry Biggert said.

“We’re all hopeful that things will be different this year, not as extreme,” Biggert said.

The Columbus Dispatch

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