TOLEDO, Ohio — Algae that turned Lake Erie green and produced toxins that fouled the tap water for 400,000 people in the Toledo area are becoming a big headache for those who keep drinking water safe even far beyond the Great Lakes.
But with no federal standards on safe levels for drinking algae-tainted water and no guidelines for treating or testing it either, water quality engineers sometimes look for solutions the same way school kids do their homework.
"We are Googling for answers," said Kelly Frey, who oversees a municipal system in Ohio that draws drinking water from the lake. "We go home and spend our nights on the Internet trying to find how other places manage it."
The contamination left about 400,000 people in parts of southwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan without clean tap water for two days in August.
Spurred by the water emergency, that saw thousands lining up for water for two days in early August, a growing chorus is calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a national standard for allowable amounts of microcystin, the toxin that contaminated Toledo's water.
Ohio, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida and Oklahoma have set their own drinking water standards for microcystin, which can cause headaches or vomiting when swallowed and can be fatal to dogs and livestock. Most of those states rely on a measurement suggested by the World Health Organization.
"There needs to be one consistent standard," said Dan Wyant, director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.
Environmental regulators from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan met with U.S. EPA officials last month, asking the agency to press not only for clear water quality standards, but also a strategy for reducing the pollutants that help the algae thrive.
But it may be several more years before the EPA is able to come up with a new benchmark because a great deal of study is still needed to determine how different amounts of the algae-related toxins affect people of all ages, said Craig Butler, director of the Ohio EPA.
"That puts the states in a tough spot," Butler said. "We wish there was more data and information, as does U.S. EPA."
The federal agency is working toward developing drinking water advisories and testing methods that would be released sometime next year and give treatment plants and states guidance for dealing with microcystin and another toxin, said Laura Allen, a U.S. EPA spokeswoman.
Water plant operators contend there's also a need for more guidance on how often to test the water and more sharing of information on combating the toxins.
Some cities where there's a known threat of harmful algae take samples daily, while others getting water from the same source might run tests once a week. Sometimes, it depends on when the testing lab is available, said Frey, the sanitary engineer in Ohio's Ottawa County.
The EPA did announce this past week that it would put more money toward helping cities along Lake Erie monitor their water. Ohio's environmental regulators also have pledged help and have been taking a bigger role in assisting water plants as of late, Frey said.
That includes routine conference calls over the past year between Ohio EPA administrators and water plant operators on the front line of the algae threat, Butler said.
Algae outbreaks — some that leave behind a variety of toxins and some that don't — are popping up increasingly in every state, fouling rivers and lakes of all sizes.
In Iowa's largest city, water plant workers decide when to sample based on "instinct and experience as opposed to requirement," said Bill Stowe, chief executive of the Des Moines Water Works. "We have a public health need that tells us we have to go beyond regulations."
Des Moines uses water from two rivers, both of which have had high levels of algae-fueled toxins on a few separate occasions in recent years. The worry is what would happen if those two drinking water sources are contaminated at the same time.
"It's not a matter if, it's a matter of when," Stowe said. "We've had near misses, and realistically they were near misses by the grace of God."
How many city water supplies could be vulnerable to toxins from algae is difficult to pinpoint. Those that use groundwater are not at risk, but about two-thirds of the nation's public drinking water comes from lakes, rivers and manmade reservoirs.
Still, conditions have to be just right for harmful algal blooms. The water needs a large dose of nutrients feeding the algae, such as phosphorus from farm fertilizers, livestock manure and sewage overflows. Heavy rainstorms washing pollutants into the water and warm weather help the algae grow, too.
Scientists say research suggests that climate change and the increasing amount phosphorus may be why there have been more harmful algae occurrences documented in recent decades.
The lake that supplies drinking water for Waco, Texas, has been plagued by algae since the mid-1980s. It hasn't reached a dangerous level, but did make the water smell and taste so bad that restaurant waitresses used to warn customers about the "Waco water."
The city completed a new $50 million treatment plant last year that uses tiny bubbles to remove algae from the water and ozone gas to destroy the toxins.
Those plants are common in Europe, but there are just four in the U.S., said Tom Conry, the city's water quality manager. "We finally realized we cannot control our watershed, and evidently no one else can," he said.
Conry doesn't think the process will work for every city and believes the real solution is protecting drinking water from pollutants that give life to the harmful algae. "We're treating the symptoms, but we're not addressing the cause," he said.