At once icky and scary, Toledo's water crisis was but a skirmish in the long battle to save Lake Erie from strangulation by algae. One of the most significant was fought in Indiana, more than four decades ago.
The environmental movement was young when Indiana became the first state to ban the use of phosphorus compounds called phosphates in detergents in 1972. By then, there was overwhelming evidence that detergent phosphates were contributing mightily to the deterioration of American waterways – and to Lake Erie's problems in particular.
Via the Maumee River watershed, the phosphates from your parents' washing machines, in fact, were ending up in Lake Erie, where they helped create giant algae blooms. Erie was deteriorating; some said it couldn't be saved.
But two things turned things around in the '70s. One was that sewage plants began to filter out more phosphorus.
The other was the phosphate ban, strongly resisted by detergent companies but pushed into law by an equally determined coalition of environmentalists led by Fort Wayne's Tom and Jane Dustin. Other states followed suit.
For years, the Dustins and their allies beat back industry attempts to persuade the legislature to repeal the ban. And by the end of the decade, amazingly, Lake Erie began to recover. Indiana lakes and streams benefited, as well.
But the battle clearly wasn't over. Since the turn of the century, other sources of phosphorus increased, and Erie – the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and thus the most vulnerable to this kind of pollution – has begun once again to choke on its own algae.
The culprit in Toledo's poisoned-water weekend was unacceptable levels of of microsystin, a chemical produced by algae and probably caused by large bloom in the lake near the city's water intake. Fort Wayne and other stream-fed water systems are not likely to be vulnerable, but other cities may face the same threat Toledo faced.
Perhaps Indiana will once again be in the forefront of the search for solutions. Alas, both of the Dustins passed away a decade ago, but their pleas and warnings about Midwestern water quality still resonate.