Water is a resource that underpins all life and biological systems — one that humans can only go a few days without and that makes up the majority of our physiology. Every human being requires water for their survival and for meeting other basic necessities such as bathing and cooking. It’s for this very reason that individuals came together when this valuable resource became threatened in Toledo, Ohio, during the water crisis of 2014.
One such individual is Alexis Smith, the community program and technology associate for the organization Freshwater Future whose mission is to ensure the health of the waters in the Great Lakes region. During a recent talk, Alexis described how the water crisis resulted from a lack of water management. Agricultural run-off containing nutrient pollutants from fertilizers and other sources of manure led to the development of algal blooms that are harmful to both humans and animals in the surrounding area.
Being situated so close to Lake Erie, Toledo depends on this large and valuable water source for a substantial portion of the city’s water needs, and contamination by the careless use of chemical fertilizers harmed the community. Consequently, community members began experiencing negative health effects which were found to be caused by the neurotoxic microcystin, a bacteria in the water that has been linked to brain degradation and diseases like Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Parkinson’s as well as other maladies like abdominal pain and liver and pancreatic failure - in fact simply touching the water could lead to skin rash.
What made this toxicity a real crisis, was the lack of communication between the local government and the community members who were consuming and using the water as they always had, unaware of the harmful effects it could have on their bodies. Nearby neighbors — largely African American, older and financially disadvantaged individuals — were among the last to be notified of the situation and were the most likely to have been exposed to the toxic water.
These same community members were the ones who finally came together to find a solution to the problem and ensure access to safe and clean water for everyone. Throughout her talk, Alexis described several solutions that were ultimately implemented including:
• a new water treatment plant
• replacing lead pipelines
• ensuring the affordability of water, and
• reducing run-off to minimize the occurrence of harmful algal blooms.
They chose to address the toxic water crisis as an economic, social and environmental problem that could be treated as an opportunity to better the health of the entire community. Consumer task forces led to an engaged community that prioritized education, green infrastructure, rural and urban collaboration, green career development, partnerships with different levels of government and policy education and reform.
By examining the Toledo water crisis and Alexis Smith’s story we can see the importance of citizen involvement in local government and organizations to ensure that all people are treated in an environmentally just way. Alexis’ story is just one of many across the nation and the globe highlighting the impact individuals can have by coordinating to protect their communities and the environment which they depend on.
Freshwater Future, freshwaterfuture.org