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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Fertilzer for corn growning in Woodburn, Indiana contributes to nutrients that end up in the Maumme River and then onto to Lake Erie

The view upstream

River makes Indiana runoff Toledo's problem

At least for the moment, it's been declared safe to drink the water again in Toledo, where dangerous toxins were detected in the water system over the weekend. Fort Wayne probably won't face the same kind of hazards – but that doesn't mean people here haven't contributed to the problem, and can't help solve it.

The toxins in Toledo, called mycrosystin, came from a cloud of blue-green algae in Lake Erie, where Toledo draws its water. Phosphorus, most of it from fertilizer and animal waste, is a key ingredient in the creation of algae blooms like the one that chanced to settle in the lake water near Toledo.

The Maumee River, formed by the confluence of the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers in Fort Wayne, carries runoff from farms and residences all along those streams into Lake Erie. It is, in fact, the single largest contributor to the lake's phosphorus problem.

“When the water is warm and stagnant, it promotes the growth of these blue-green algae,” explained Dr. Bob Gillespie, who specializes in eco-toxicology at IPFW.

But as it is carried along by streams and rivers, the phosphorus in those wastes isn't likely to be able to cause major problems.

So the fact that our water is drawn from the St. Joseph, rather than from a lake, makes it unlikely that we'll have to deal with dangerous levels of mycrosystin.

“It's a different situation on the St. Joe River than it is for (Toledo),” Frank Suarez, spokesman for Fort Wayne City Utilities, said Monday. Suarez said employees who have worked for the water company for 30 years don't remember seeing an algae problem in Fort Wayne.

Nonetheless, the city tests for mycrosystin in the river water regularly. “We're proactive,” Suarez said. Because of Toledo's experience, “we're going to analyze even farther upstream.”

Besides testing for phosphorus, the city checks the river for dissolved oxygen, E. coli bacteria, ammonia and solids, among other indicators. The water undergoes even more extensive analysis when it's processed at the plant.

Fort Wayne's $400 million plan to prevent combined sewer overflows will not stop the algae blooms in Lake Erie. But the efforts of the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative may be making a difference in the types and amounts of chemicals that are entering our streams on the way to Ohio.

“Managing these nonpoint sources is very difficult, as you can imagine,” said Gillespie, who chairs the initiative's board of directors. But the initiative is engaged in getting funds to help farmers better manage fertilizers through using equipment, adopting better growing practices and providing education on the issue. There are low- and no-phosphorus alternatives for residential yard fertilizers as well, Gillespie said.

Toledo's water crisis shows how interconnected our ecosystem is and how difficult it is to solve pollution problems. We all have to work together. Today, there's always somebody upstream.