Despite 2012 algae break feds invest in longterm Great Lakes controls
Not when that issue is Great Lakes algae.
The Obama administration spread about half that sum, or $3 million, among seven Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant recipients in Ohio and nearly as much to four in Michigan, mostly for nutrient-reduction projects aimed to help reduce algae.
The administration’s support for addressing the underlying causes of it this fall is not likely to be noticed by a lot of people, but avid lake-watchers know it is – symbolically, if nothing else – a good sign of commitment to a battle that is years away from being won, if that’s even possible.
The worst thing that could have happened would have been for federal funding to go on hiatus just because this summer’s unusual drought gave the region a one-year reprieve from noxious algae, especially toxic microcystis.
“We want to keep the heat on cutting back algae. We don’t want to let up,” explained Cameron Davis, senior Great Lakes adviser to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. “We’re trying to accelerate our nutrient-reduction programs.”
The hallmark of environmental stewardship isn’t just what happens during the height of a spill or other crisis, but what happens in-between to manage things so that little problems don’t become big ones.
The algae issue has been so historically mismanaged that it had become a crisis in public relations and public health. This year began with fishermen and high-powered corporations genuinely worried what was in store for western Lake Erie, the area that has been the pace-setter for algae problems across the Great Lakes region because of its warmth, shallowness, and heavy phosphorus loads from farm runoff and sewage overflows.
The anxiety was brought on by record algal blooms during the summers of 2010 and 2011, the culmination of microcystis outbreaks that have occurred annually since 1995 after vanishing in the mid 1970s. Microcystis has the same toxin that killed 75 people in Brazil in 1996.
The 2012 algae watch began with a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people, many of them fishermen, hotel operators and other businessmen, gathering in Sandusky to urge more aggressive action from state of Ohio officials last January.
One of Cedar Point’s top officials expressed concern. Weeks later, at a special workshop hosted by the University of Toledo’s College of Law, speakers compared the record algae outbreaks of 2010 and 2011 to the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire. The latter is often cited as the turning point for Great Lakes restoration. Their point was that western Lake Erie’s record algae blooms had driven away so much business that, like the infamous Cuyahoga River fire, they had become such an embarrassment they could actually galvanize the region.
This summer’s algae was suppressed, but not because of the region’s collective efforts to keep phosphorus and other nutrients out of rivers, streams, and ditches that flow into the Great Lakes.
Lord knows there were enough heatwaves for a third consecutive record bloom. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records released on Oct. 9 show the first nine months of 2012 were the hottest on record for many regions, including the Great Lakes.
The biggest reason there wasn’t nearly the algae there has been in recent years s because of the timing and severity of the drought. There simply wasn’t the rain to push as many nutrients into the tributaries. That, if anything, convinced researchers such as Jeff Reutter of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie that runoff is the real culprit.
Funding cycles and federal bureaucracy more than likely prevent the U.S. EPA from tinkering too much with decisions it took months to make about projects it will support under President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has pumped about $1.5 billion of new money into the region since he took office. Still, when it comes to budgetary shell games during election years, anything is possible. But the administration has hung tough on algae.
The projects it agreed to fund this fall:
- $995,204 to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to help reduce phosphorus and bacteria loads in the Kawkawlin River, a tributary of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay
- $798,282 to a watershed group to help reduce erosion and runoff along the Muskegon River and subsequently Lake Michigan
- $780,745 for the Ohio EPA to help Lucas County keep stormwater out of Lake Erie, and multiple other grants to the Ohio EPA, the University of Toledo, the Nature Conservancy, the Michigan DEQ, and others for work along major tributaries and near-shore areas, such as the Maumee River and the River Raisin.
Complete list here.