The recent water contamination issue in Toledo, Ohio, is yet another reminder of how fragile our infrastructure truly is, particularly as it pertains to water, and how interconnected our environment is. In the case of Toledo, the belief is that nitrogen and phosphorus from farm fertilizer runoff entered the Maumee River which drains into the Bay where Toledo is located. Together with the unseasonably warm weather, these chemicals stimulated the growth of blue-green algae which in turn produced the neurotoxin microcystin. Neurotoxins are not affected by the usual defense mechanisms within water systems and cannot be removed by boiling, making it particularly difficult to deal with.
However, there seems to be a misconception that this is the first time this sort of thing has happened. That’s not the case. For example, a Cryptosporidium outbreak in 1987 in Carroll County Georgia sickened over 13,000 citizens. Another outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993 killed 104 people and sickened over 400,000. The cause of the outbreak was traced to a sewer outfall 2 miles upstream on Lake Michigan. This incident remains the largest outbreak of waterborne disease in US history.
Since contamination of the water supply by parasites such as Cryptosporidium or neurotoxins such as microcystin is possible, it follows that it is yet one more thing for which emergency managers need to prepare. The question is how can we plan for a crisis that may be caused by events over we have no control (e.g. farm runoff miles from the jurisdiction for which we are responsible) and for whom such plan is clearly the responsibility of another agency (i.e. the municipal water department).
This really is no different from the myriad other threats for which we are expected to plan. It begins with raising awareness of the threat and providing solid information to decision-makers. We can push to make sure that such planning remains on agency radar screens. And finally, we can develop contingencies that make use of all hazard planning. For example, there are suggestions that the government in Toledo did not communicate as well as they could have; the experience of emergency managers in public notification and warning could have been of benefit.
The important thing to remember is that it is not possible for a single agency to plan for everything in detail. Emergency managers must leverage their influence and the skills they bring to the table to encourage and support others in accomplishing needed planning.