Policymakers on the brink of algae action need to get it done
Do you remember the big Lake Erie algae bloom from 2011?
It spanned from Toledo to well-past Cleveland and was a sign that the smallest of the Great Lakes was again on the cusp of a near-death experience.
It was so pronounced that the official hand-wringing and soul-searching quickly began. Who’s responsible and what to do?
The commissions and agencies that monitor the Great Lakes knew they couldn’t sit idly by.
Then EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson flew to Detroit where the Great Lakes community was gathered for its annual conference. She announced that fighting algae would be one of her top Great Lakes priorities.
The U.S. and Canadian commission that advises the two governments on Great Lakes issues launched a program specifically to study Lake Erie’s algae issues with the goal of making recommendations in 2013.
The EPA stepped up and invested $800,000 in 2012 in Ohio projects that deal with algae.
On a larger scale, the U.S and Canada International Joint Commission last week released a draft report on Lake Erie that had its genesis in the 2011 algae outbreak.
The report uses unvarnished language which is uncharacteristic of an organization accustomed to diplomacy speak. It prescribes strong medicine for the Ohio agricultural community, the primary source of phosphorous runoff that leads to algae blooms.
The Lake Erie report however is important because of its substance, candor and it comes from an international agency. Still, it’s only advisory. Who knows how much of that strong medicine will be enacted by the time the recommendations are filtered through the various bureaucracies.
More important is the work that’s happening in Ohio.
Lake Erie’s problem is an Ohio problem that requires an Ohio solution and something may be brewing. (Yes, I know the Detroit River’s sewage flow is a contributor but to put a focus there is a crutch.)
A bill in the works in the Ohio senate has potential to make a real impact.
It would give the Ohio Department of Natural Resources the authority to “cite farmers for pollution if rain washes too much fertilizer off of their fields,” according to a Columbus Dispatch article. The bill would also require farmers to take training before spreading fertilizer.
To date, farmers have only been encouraged to voluntarily adopt best management practices such as not fertilizing on frozen soil.
The legislation’s sponsor has been gathering comments from agricultural interests over the summer.
Both actions are a good step to reign in agricultural pollution, but we’ll have to see what makes the final bill. One red flag has already surfaced as the bill contains a provision that allows farmers to shield their fertilizing practices from the public. It’s never a good idea to allow a polluter to withhold information from the public.
Another caution is that there’s talk of transferring authority over fertilizer pollution from the Ohio DNR to the Department of Agriculture. That could be akin to doing a self-audit of your tax returns instead of having it done by an independent source.
The DNR is an arm-length removed from farmers. The Department of Agriculture isn’t.
How has the Ohio ag community reacted to this scrutiny and attention?
There is high-level acknowledgement of the problem, but it’s still too soon to tell if that will translate to action.
One farm blogger is suspicious, posting in Ohio Ag that while farmers can improve their fertilizing practices, the science on ag’s liability for algae blooms isn’t settled yet and isn’t likely to be soon.
That’s sounds like a call to delay and study.
I’d like to be optimistic that Ohio will lead the region in addressing the ag runoff/algae bloom problem. If it passes meaningful legislation with teeth it could set the bar high for other states. It could also take a big step toward protecting the multi-billion dollar Lake Erie tourist economy which is at risk.
But optimism requires a basis and that’s hard to find in the Buckeye state when it comes to water stewardship.
Remember, Ohio essentially allowed the Chamber of Commerce to write its water conservation law, one of the weakest in the region. That’s the same law that was championed in the legislature by a lawmaker whose day job is as a bottled water executive.
And Ohio Gov. John Kasich couldn’t find his way to Michigan earlier this year to attend a bi-partisan Great Lakes governor’s summit that had a significant conservation component. His absence was conspicuous since he governs the state bordering the most vulnerable of the Great Lakes.
There is good news concerning algae blooms.
Everyone, including the agricultural community, now publicly recognizes the problem. That recognition is driven by the negative impact algae blooms are having on other economic interests like Ohio’s fishing and tourism industry.
And the fix doesn’t require massive amounts of money. Sure, funding for ongoing research will be necessary but we’re talking nickels not $100 bills.
In two short years the official Great Lakes community – agencies and the Ohio legislature — has moved from what to do about algae to the precipice of taking meaningful action.
That’s great but it’s that last step that’s the hard one.
The Great Lakes community gathers in Milwaukee next week for its annual conference. Algae will be on the agenda.
Let’s hope attendees note the direct language used by architects of the Lake Erie report and use it to push Ohio to pass a tough bill that leads to measurable results.
Otherwise we risk being in the familiar place of knowing what to do but unable to muster the will to do it.