A sample glass of Lake Erie water that was extracted near the City of Toledo water intake
Last summer, toxins contaminated the water supply of the city of Toledo leaving 400,000 people without access to safe drinking water for two days. This problem was caused by a massive algae boom.
Water problems in the Great Lakes — the world’s largest freshwater system — have spiked in the last three years, largely because of agricultural pollution. Toledo draws its drinking water from Lake Erie.
Flooded by tides of phosphorus washed from fertilized farms, cattle feedlots and leaky septic systems, the most intensely developed of the Great Lakes is increasingly being choked each summer by thick mats of algae, much of it poisonous. What plagues Toledo and, experts say, potentially all 11 million lakeside residents, is increasingly a serious problem across the United States.
This satellite image provided by NOAA shows the algae bloom on Lake Erie in 2011 which according to NOAA was the worst in decades.
But while there is talk of action — and particularly in Ohio, real action — there also is widespread agreement that efforts to address the problem have fallen woefully short. And the troubles are not restricted to the Great Lakes. Poisonous algae are found in polluted inland lakes from Minnesota to Nebraska to California, and even in the glacial-era kettle ponds of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Algae fed by phosphorus runoff from mid-America farms helped create an oxygen-free dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2013 that was nearly as big as New Jersey. The Chesapeake Bay regularly struggles with a similar problem.
Agriculture runoff is responsible for more ecosystem disruption than any other single kind of pollution. In New York, algae blooms have killed pets, sickened humans, and even clouded the waters of the iconic lakes in both Central and Prospect Parks.
Algal bloom in Central Park
Algae blooms turn waters into shades of green, and can produce harmful toxins called microcystins. According to the Environmental Protection Agency
, exposure to microcystins—through skin contact, consumption, or respiration—“may cause a wide range of symptoms in humans including fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.”
Counties shaded in green have had a suspicious or confirmed blue-green algal bloom in 2014.
By contrast, New York City is confident that algal blooms are not an issue. Adam Bosch, spokesperson for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, assures New York City residents that there is no need to worry. “The answer is simple,” he states. “We just don’t have algae in New York City reservoirs.”
“NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms,” Bosch continues. For the last 20 years, the DEP has worked to protect the forests and lands surrounding the reservoirs and rivers, replacing septic systems, developing a robust forestry program, and working with agricultural producers to reduce run-off.
“These healthy forests suck up all the extra nutrients and are so efficient that you don’t even find algal blooms in the headwaters,” Bosch said. Bill Wegner, staff scientist with Riverkeeper, confirms the DEP’s claims. “The water bodies have to be eutrophic, meaning nutrient-loaded [in order to have algae], and there are no eutrophic reservoirs that are part of the New York City water supply.”
And on the off chance that a bloom did develop? Weekly and monthly sampling of key points in the system means that New York City water is well-tested, some 550,000 times each year. And because the City’s water is pulled from a vast system of 19 reservoirs and three lakes, Bosch reassures that the DEP could switch one off easily without feeling an impact.
Could vertical farming help solve the problems of agricultural runoff and algal blooms?
Outside of Chicago, Green Sense Farms
leases a 30,000-square foot warehouse to bring affordable, fresh food all-year-round for customers in the Midwest. They make more efficient use of land, water and energy to grow food free of pesticides, herbicides, preservatives and GMO seeds. On top, they create dramatically fewer emissions caused by the transportation of food.
Carl Wenz and Robert Colangelo of Green Sense Farms
At the northern outskirts of Milwaukee, stand 14 greenhouses on two acres of land. This is Growing Power
, the only land within the Milwaukee city limits zoned as farmland. Founded by MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow Will Allen, Growing Power is an active farm producing tons of food each year, a food distribution hub, and a training center. Will Allen is the author of The Good Food Revolution
Will Allen of Growing Powing
Growing Power and The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. developed an innovative conceptual design for a vertical farm. This will expand and improve Growing Power’s greenhouse and aquaponics operations currently spread over a two-acre site located in the City of Milwaukee. Five stories of south-facing greenhouse areas will allow production of plants, vegetables, and herbs year-round. Expanded educational classrooms, conference spaces, demonstration kitchen, food processing and storage, freezers, and loading docks will further support Growing Power’s expanding mission as a local and national resource for learning about sustainable urban food production. Administrative offices, volunteer spaces, and staff support areas will be closely connected to greenhouse and educational areas to allow for active observation and participation.
ALLEN WASHATKO, TKWA
“The decline in arable land, ongoing global climate change, water shortages and continued population growth could change our view of traditional farming from soil-based operations to highly efficient greenhouses or urban farms.” – ALLEN WASHATKO, TKWA
Vertical farming can also address drought and disease