Ohio toxic water scare ‘could absolutely happen' in Manitoba

Tap water is safe to drink again after nearly half a million people in Ohio were without water for two days, but one expert in Manitoba said it isn’t outside of the realm of possibility that such a scare could happen in Manitoba.
Fresh water specialist Gordon Goldsborough says it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that Winnipeg's water supply could at one point, left unchecked, experience toxic algal bloom problems 1:55

A Manitoba water expert says the recent water scare in Ohio is a very real possibility in Manitoba.

Nearly half a million residents in Toledo, Ohio, scrambled for water on the weekend after city tap water was deemed unsafe after high levels of the toxin microcystin, which can cause nerve and liver damage, showed up in water tests.

"It could absolutely happen here," said University of Manitoba biologist Gordon Goldsborough, a water quality specialist who said the toxin is already present at low levels in most of Manitoba's lakes.

"It could happen again in Toledo, it could happen here in Winnipeg, it could happen pretty much anywhere in North America or probably most water bodies in the world. The fact is, algae are all over the place."

In Toledo, the unsafe levels of microcystin were found in the Lake Erie municipal water supply. It's the same toxin occasionally produced by blue-green algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg.

And that algae is also present on Shoal Lake, which is the water supply for the City of Winnipeg, Goldsborough said.

The toxin levels in a basin like Shoal Lake are currently at low, safe levels, but Goldsborough said that can change rather quickly.

"It can change literally day-by-day, week-by-week,” said Goldsborough. “You have to keep monitoring and then, as they did in Toledo, when they find the results are high they issue some kind of alert."

The province does monitor microcystin levels and a spokesperson for the City said Winnipeg said the municipal water supply is safe to drink.

Shoal Lake’s waters are tested regularly and results are published online at the City of Winnipeg's website.

The latest monitoring update to the city’s water supply was published in May of this year.

'We have to change our ways'

Goldsborough notes filtration doesn't really work to remove the toxin, and neither does boiling. 

"More fundamentally the solution is to try to prevent them from being there in the first place," he said.

We will continue to have toxins as long as we have algae and algae is only exacerbated by pollutants we pour into water like fertilizer, manure, and sewage, he added. 

"Somehow we've got to reverse that. We have to change our ways fundamentally. This is not an easy quick fix, but it is possible," Goldsborough said, adding he hopes the Ohio incident raises awareness about the concern over algae toxins and the fundamental cause of them — the nutrient pollution of water.

"Hopefully it makes people aware that we've got to do more to try to make our water better," he said. [It] may mean paying more tax for example because the reality is cleaning water isn't free, it takes a commitment of resources.

"Humans are going to have to accept the notion if they want pure, safe, water they're going to have to pay for it."