Courtesy Kandace York/Toledo Zoo
What happened to the zoo animals when the city of Toledo was told to not drink or bathe in the water?
When I read last week about the water advisory in Toledo—400,000 Toledo-area residents unable to drink or bathe in their tap water because of an algae bloom on Lake Erie, the city’s water source—I rushed to find a farmer who was affected. What a nightmare, I thought, to not be able to irrigate your crops or water your livestock, never mind the effects you’d feel on your personal life. Instead of interviewing a water-advised farmer, I found one who instead of bemoaning her loss, used her well help out other four-legged friends. I thought this was a nicer story.
With more than 9,000 animals in the care of the Toledo Zoo, you might imagine that a bit of water gets used there every day. And it’s not like you can explain to a polar bear that it can’t take a swim today because Lake Erie is in crisis. Enter Waterville, Ohio, farmers Susan Muenzer, a CSA vegetable farmer and co-owner of Nilsson Landscaping, and Chuck Thomas, a corn, soybean, hay and cattle farmer. (Did you note the name of the town where these folks live?) These neighbors delivered nearly 5,000 gallons of water to the Toledo Zoo using landscape trucks and water tanks to provide drinking water for the animals. An additional 13,000 gallons of water were brought to the zoo by government agencies, including area fire departments to use in the animals’ pools.
“It was nice because we had farmers in the area who had wells and could share their water with us,” says Jeff Sailer, Toledo Zoo executive director. It wasn’t just these farmers who offered help, either. Jeff said people were offering the zoo bottled water, too, but with the farmers’ and government agencies’ water sources, the zoo was able to redirect those donations elsewhere.
I immediately thought it was risky to send out so much water from your own well, knowing firsthand how quickly water reserves can run dry if they’re not managed thoughtfully. However, Muenzer said that while her area was short of rain by about 4 inches since the beginning of July, they’d had plenty of rain and snow over the winter and spring, so water reserves were right where they needed to be this time of year.
Courtesy Andi Norman/Toledo Zoo
Muenzer has ties to the zoo, too, as Nilsson Landscaping works on its paving and landscaping projects. The zoo reached out to her as a natural ally when the water advisory was issued.
“The zoo is such a positive part of our larger community—we were happy to help them. Like most people in the area, people helped out whoever was in need,” Muenzer says. “I am proud of our community for the calm and quick response to such an emergency.”
A Wake-up Call for Farmers
All niceness aside, let’s let Toledo’s misfortune be a wake-up call for all of us. The Toledo water advisory made major headlines because of the size of the population affected. There are smaller water advisories happening around us every day that we just don’t hear about. Our water is so, so precious. Most of us take it for granted every day, but there are things we can do around the farm and in the home to conserve.
Nutrient-management practices among farmers is being questioned right now, as well, as the algae bloom in Lake Erie that triggered this water crisis is being blamed on phosphorous levels. High phosphorous concentrations come from manure and fertilizer run-off—particularly from industrial agriculture—and from sewage. Now, readers, is the time to put together a nutrient-management plan, no matter how small your farm’s nutrient contribution might be to your watershed. Some states and counties require this document already, and those that don’t now will surely very soon.