Random thoughts while waiting for Great Lakes Algae Watch 2013 to begin

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Tom Henry

Commentary

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition last week unveiled an interactive map that shows where large investments of U.S. tax dollars have resulted in successful cleanups of toxic hot spots in the near-shore lake region’s ecology.

It also shows areas that have had wetlands restored, as well as other projects to reduce runoff from cities and farms.

It’s a little cluttered, but that’s a good thing.

There are 60 restoration projects documented across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and New York. The coalition, which now represents more than 120 environmental, conservation, outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums, vows to add to the map as more projects are completed.

Mapping cynicism or progress?

A cynical journalist might suggest that the coalition is shedding light on these projects for political gain.

 It was formed to lobby Congress for these sorts of projects after former President George W. Bush’s administration did a good job of identifying $23 billion of work that needed to be done in the Great Lakes region, but — sacked by the costs of Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — did little to fund them. President Obama made a campaign promise in 2008 to fund at least $5 billion of the work before he left office. He has fallen off pace from that commitment, obviously up against a few funding obstacles of his own. But even recent allocations of $300 million a year are an improvement.

Yes, one can wonder what ulterior motives lie behind this new interactive map — or just accept the fact that, especially when budgets are tight, the American public needs to see results.

The Great Lakes region has been guilty from time to time of failing to take note of its results. Perhaps that’s because they are so incremental and because, as a matter of perspective, advances in science and technology allow us to operate more efficiently and pick up the pace on cleanups and pollution-prevention efforts. There’s always the issue of political will among members of Congress.

That’s why it’s important to document the results.

Missing, though, is Canada’s contribution.

Piping ploversGreatLakesWatchLogo

 These small, stocky and — unfortunately – rare shorebirds that have almost a cartoon quality the way they dash and skitter across beach sand — are entering that phase of year in which they show more love toward prospective mates.

            The birds consequently are getting lots of love from the Michigan Audubon Society. It is on another hunt for volunteers to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor nesting areas near the Ludington, Wilderness, and Tawas State Parks; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; Hiawatha National Forest, and various Upper Peninsula locales, including Escanaba and Grand Marais.

Nearly all plovers left in the Great Lakes region are in Michigan. The bird also breeds along the Atlantic coast and the Northern Great Plains. They are considered endangered in the Great Lakes region and threatened elsewhere.

Bracing for algae

From the hallways of Toledo’s Government Center to the hallways of Congress, it seems that most anyone attuned to Great Lakes water quality is in a waiting mode these days — waiting to see just how bad the summer of 2013’s algae will be, especially in warm and shallow western Lake Erie, where the problem is most acute.

This is a big year for algae watchers. Western Lake Erie had record outbreaks in 2010 and 2011, then got what is believed to be a one-year reprieve in 2012 because of a fluke of nature (or what people hope was a fluke), the worst drought in a half-century.

Now, the question doesn’t appear to be whether algae will return — but when and to what degree?

The University of Michigan published a report this spring forecasting 2013 as a rough summer for algae.

National Geographic and the New York Times are among the major publications which put western Lake Erie’s algae under the national spotlight with stories this year.

The secret’s out. While getting on an elevator in Toledo’s Government Center the other day, Tim Murphy, Toledo’s commissioner of environmental services, said the inevitable algae was on his mind as he was heading up to the building’s 22nd floor for his weekly staff meeting with Mayor Mike Bell.

My gut tells me this region is on an Algae Watch because this summer is shaping up to be a much more representative year than 2012. There was considerable rain in the spring, as there often is, which means rivers and streams flowing into western Lake Erie, especially the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, have been pounded by more algae-feeding phosphorus in the water from farm runoff, lawn chemicals, and sewage overflows.

Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie’s Gibraltar Island, said the biggest hope for a mild algae outbreak this summer would be if the summer rain slowed to a trickle. We were dry for a few weeks, but we’ve had a series of heavy storms lately.

I’ve stated on several occasions that crossing your fingers and hoping that rain comes only when it’s convenient is no way to address this issue.

There has definitely been some progress.

Toledo is another year closer to making its sewage overflows a thing of the past, as it moves closer toward completion of its long-awaited upgrade and expansion of its sewage network. There are still several more years of work and millions of dollars to be spent by a city struggling to make ends meet. But contracts are in place. The project is starting to yield real results and compliance with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order issued in the 1990s after years of litigation is starting to come within reach.

There are signs the U.S. Department of Agriculture and area farm bureaus are taking the runoff issue more seriously.

Threats of more regulation have grown, yet there are signs this isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to political pressure. Some — not all, mind you, but some – members of the farming and agricultural industries have stepped up. Scott’s, the region’s largest fertilizer manufacturer, has removed phosphorus from the products it markets here. Soil and water conservation officials and ag officials are getting their word out and getting more cooperation.

Is it perfect? No. But it’s a step in the right direction and the reality is the problem was not ever attributable to one source.

Unfortunately, we’re still caught between the vortex of talking, doing studies and taking meaningful action.

Things looked promising a couple of years ago when Ohio Sen. Randy Gardner (R – Bowling Green) held  hearings on the algae issue. The business community showed up in force, including representatives from Cedar Point, one of Ohio’s largest employers. Gardner still seems determined.

Funding threat

But one of the great under-reported stories of this year was Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s attempt to strip Stone Laboratory of $285,000 in funding that it normally gets from the state. Stone Lab does vital algae research and is located in the heart of where the problem manifests itself.

That thrust Reutter, the lab’s director, into the awkward and unusual (for him) position of lobbying for lab funding. Reutter has been around for decades and has been at the helm of countless research panels domestically and with Canada. He’s had a strong relationship with politicians from both parties — a highly professional one that has kept him in the public eye mostly as a facilitator and go-to expert. He’s not used to being on the defense.

At last check, Ohio legislators were restoring that sum for Stone Lab. But Great Lakes research funding in general is far too much of a tenuous, year-to-year thing — especially if the idea is to save money by being proactive. Heidelberg University in Tiffin has done the region’s most consistent and enduring testing of the Maumee and Sandusky rivers since the 1970s, but only because officials there have become savvy at cobbling together a hodgepodge of grants. Many years they head into spring not knowing if all funding sources for their sampling will be covered.   

Many people don’t realize that much of the funding for vital stream testing comes not from our state and federal governments, but from industry sources such as The Fertilizer Institute, as well as corporations.

One of the great unknowns and developing issues is the degree to which concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, contribute to Great Lakes algae.

Should feds audit state livestock enforcement?

 Pew Charitable Trusts said last week that it is upset with the Obama administration for what the group perceives as more foot-dragging and politicking on this issue.

The statement was in response to a U.S. EPA announcement that the agency is soon to audit state programs aimed at keeping livestock waste out of the Cheasapeake Bay.

Pew believes the administration should be doing at least that much for the Great Lakes.It notes that Obama promised during his 2008 campaign for the White House to “strictly regulate pollution from large factory livestock farms.

            “Pew is extremely disappointed that instead of strengthening national rules to protect all of our waterways from livestock waste, the EPA is conducting more assessments,” said Seth Horstmeyer, an Ohio native who now directs Pew’s agricultural watchdog efforts. “Small businesses and coastal communities rely on clean water for drinking, food, commerce and tourism. The Obama administration should keep its promise to strengthen rules needed to protect our waterways from animal waste. The time to act is long overdue.”

So there you have it. A mixed bag. We’re making progress on the algae issue — but not fast enough and not in all of the right places.

4 thoughts on “Random thoughts while waiting for Great Lakes Algae Watch 2013 to begin

  1. How is it they blame zebra mussels for the algae, when the algae blooms started in the 50’s. We never heard of zebra mussels in the 50’s but we had alewives and both affect zooplankton that eat algae?

  2. Hi Tom and Jeff: What can I do to help. I am a nature photographer and a active member of the Clear Fork Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Jeff may have seen some of my images on facebook. Paul Swarmer

  3. Should Feds audit state livestock enforcement? No. Let’s just let them police themselves, because they already do such a fantastic job with animal welfare (sarcasm). Here’s a valuable, interactive resource that shows industrial factory farm proliferation–you can zoom in on the Great Lakes areas, employ filters for various species of tormented, suffering animals, access charts and graphs, etc. http://www.factoryfarmmap.org/

  4. Yes it’s coming. It will continue to come every year and will only get worse. The only thing we can do to stop it is to restart the natural ice conveyor system. We do this by outlawing the use of the ice boom and then deal with the changes along the shoreline. People will bitch that there dock is damaged or gone but tough luck. The needs of the entire Lower Great Lakes ecosystem are far more important than boater convenience. Everybody use to put them in after the ice flow and took them out before winter. worked for hundreds of years. Read Ice Boom Theory at http://www.bantheboom.com THX JBB

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