By Ignazio Messina

During a meeting of hundreds of city leaders this week at the White House, two Midwestern mayors who govern populations worried about their drinking water discovered similarities in their challenges.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Mich., were among 300 leaders who attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, which began Wednesday.

While Toledo is actively addressing its water woes in the wake of the 2014 algal bloom crisis, Flint is facing a longer -- and much more difficult, and surely more expensive -- road ahead.

"Our problem pales to what they have to do in Flint. We have to treat our source water for microcystin, but in Flint, they have to replace their pipes -- not just the [city] pipes, but those in people's houses," Mayor Hicks-Hudson said.

The cost faced by her Flint counterpart could be staggering, Mayor Hicks-Hudson said. High levels of lead that leached from water pipes -- after a switch to less expensive water from the Flint River -- exposed the nearly 100,000 residents to the toxic metal.

The Flint water crisis, which started in 2013, includes failure to use chemicals to control corrosion. Toledo's water system failed for nearly three days in August, 2014, when a harmful algal bloom settled around the Lake Erie intake and unsafe levels of microcystin fouled the water supply.

That problem is treatable with chemistry and did not leave Toledoans with any lasting effects that Flint residents -- especially children -- face from high levels of lead exposure, Mayor Hicks-Hudson said.

"She talked about the similarities and the need for getting a handle on this," Mayor Hicks-Hudson said. "She is going to be dealing with a generational issue, which is how do you protect those lead pipes, and they have the societal cost and educational cost that they will have to help those children who have been diagnosed with lead poisoning."

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, during his annual State of the State speech Tuesday, apologized for the crisis and vowed to do everything in his power to solve it. He asked Michigan legislators for $28 million to fund short-term remedies.

Mayor Weaver could not be reached for comment.

Toledo city spokesman Janet Schroeder said Toledo's drinking water is protected from lead leaching.

Toledo's water distribution lines are made of steel, iron, and concrete but water pipes leading to some properties may include lead, Ms. Schroeder said.

"We treat the water to protect our customers' water from the plant to the tap," she said in an email. "The city of Toledo uses a process at the water treatment plant to inhibit corrosion and prevent lead and copper levels from entering the distribution system."

Andrew McClure, Collins Park Water Treatment Plant administrator, said Toledo leaders in their most recent test collected 50 samples to check for lead exposure. Forty-nine were "below the detection level for the test" and the 50th test registered 5 parts per billion, he said.

Mr. McClure said the city drinking water is within safe levels as long as lead is less than 15 parts per billion in the water -- which is the level set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, although many researchers say no level of lead exposure is safe.

The EPA says "no level of lead in blood has been identified as safe for children."

(c)2016 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)