Toxic algae is wreaking havoc in northern Ohio, but it's not doing it alone.
A toxic bloom in Lake Erie — which forced the city of Toledo to turn off its tap water for two days this weekend — was exacerbated by another environmental calamity: hordes of invasive mussels that plague the Great Lakes ecosystem.
The mollusks, known as zebra and quagga mussels, arrived from Eastern Europe in the late 1980s by latching onto boats and have since spread throughout the Great Lakes.
And, in terms of water quality, the critters are a reverse filter: They remove sediment and food particles out of the water, sapping the resources native mussels and fish need.
But they leave the dangerous elements in place. The invaders are picky and don't absorb toxic forms of algae known as microcystis, leaving it to collect in the harmful blue-green algae blooms that collect on the surface.
"It's basically spitting the stuff out," explained Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Michigan's Grand Valley State University. "Now the blue-greens in the water column have very few competitors "¦ and they bloom."
That's what's happening in Lake Erie, and this weekend, the trouble came to Toledo. More than 400,000 residents were without water until Monday morning after a toxin linked to an algal bloom was detected in an intake system. The ban was lifted on Monday, but the algae problem isn't going away — blooms will linger throughout the summer and have been steadily making a comeback in Lake Erie for years.