Ethan Wells has lived along the Ohio River for almost all of his 32 years. One day last August near his home in Sistersville, an hour south of Wheeling, West Virginia, he noticed blue-green algae growing along the riverbank. And each time he looked, there was more of it.
“I grew up on a farm around ponds and on the river so I knew what it was,” Wells says. “It started to cover the river—like a neon slime across the top. And it was kind of eerie in a way to have the river alive like that.”
A lot of other people noticed, too. That summer, more than 600 miles of toxic algae, known as cyanobacteria, erupted across the river in West Virginia, Ohio and all the way downriver into Illinois. Touching the stuff can be dangerous: It can cause rashes, lung and kidney problems. Previous algae blooms around the world have been deadly. So states issued health warnings to avoid contact with the thick, stinky slime.
“At a certain point, we actually enacted our contingency plan for the Huntington water system to switch over to an alternate source,” says Laura Martin, a spokesperson for West Virginia American Water, which runs the treatment plant in Huntington. It was one of 14 drinking water plants that found blooms in their intakes during last summer’s outbreak.
Since that event, Martin says developing ways to deal with toxic algae is the plant’s number one priority. During the 2015 bloom, water plants used chemicals to ensure the water was safe to send to customers. But treatment is expensive. That water plant in Huntington spent $700,000 to deal with that one outbreak on the Ohio. And others are now scrambling to figure out how to prepare for similar events—and also how to prevent future blooms.
Stanley States, who was a water quality manager at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority for decades, is one person who’s been working on the front lines of the issue. Now an instructor at Texas A&M University, States travels around the country teaching water utilities how to deal with disasters, including cyanobacteria blooms.
“The ultimate solution to controlling cyanobacteria blooms is [to] control the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water,” States says.
Nutrients, especially phosphates, have been blamed for algae blooms in rivers and lakes all over the world. They come from sewage plants, lawns and agriculture—which is a major nutrient source along the Ohio River. There are some 250,000 farms in the Ohio River watershed.
“So on farmland, if they use artificial fertilizers, they are supplemented with phosphates,” States says. “If a farmer uses natural fertilizers—dung—that’s loaded with phosphates. So rains wash these phosphates into rivers [and] lakes.”
And that phosphorus mixed with warm summer water—which is getting warmer as the climate changes—is the perfect recipe for a cyanobacteria bloom.
On Lake Erie, toxic blooms have become something of a late summer ritual. The bloom was so big in 2014, it contaminated the drinking water supply for nearly a half million people in Toledo.
States says the Ohio River could also continue to have blooms—in part, because of all the locks and dams along the river that are in place to regulate flow. “It’s not a free-flowing river,” States says. “It’s [like] a series of lakes.” And when the blooms took off on the Ohio river last summer, the state of Ohio was quick to respond.
“A lot of what we were doing on the Ohio River, we learned from our situation up in Toledo,” says Karl Gebhardt, deputy director of water resources with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “We wanted to make sure that since they had never experienced this before, we were very quick in getting to them to make sure they were sampling the water before it came into the intake, and were implementing the proper treatment.”
Ohio has become a key state to watch when it comes to treating toxic blooms. Farm runoff in general has been largely unregulated. But last year, Ohio passed a law limiting when farmers can apply manure to farm fields in an effort to reduce nutrient runoff.
“That was a big legislative achievement that the ag community—to their credit—bought into,” Gebhardt says.
Ohio isn’t going it alone. It’s working with other states around the Great Lakes to reduce nutrient runoff into the lakes. Their collaborative goal: Cut this type of pollution 40 percent over the next decade.
Gebhardt says Ohio’s new runoff regulations apply to farms all over the state, so it’s also expected to keep pollution out of the Ohio River. So far, other river states haven’t taken these kinds of steps.
“Hopefully, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana would look at that and say, ‘Ok, do we feel confident in our program that we’re doing what we can do, or do we need to revisit that?’”
Gebhardt says state coordination could reduce pollution and prevent more toxic blooms all along the river. And in the long run, that could save water treatment plants money and help ensure safe drinking water for the 5 million people who depend on the Ohio.
This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Find this story and others at the site of our partner, Allegheny Front.