Policymakers on the brink of algae action need to get it done

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Commentary

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.

What happened?

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 EPA’s investment is a start and acknowledgement of the problem but it barely nips at the issue.chicagoview

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.

  • Steve

    The science is pretty strong behind the idea that phosphorous grows algae in lakes. Any other “culprit” is a smokescreen. Sure some might help to treat the problem but then again “an ounce of prevention….”

  • Gary

    Thanks Leigh and your right to point it out.

    Grand Lake St. Mary’s algae problems were the precursor for Ohio
    politicians to focus on Lake Erie.

    Gary Wilson

  • Leigh N.

    Don’t forget about our inland lakes. Grand Lake St. Mary’s is a prime example. It’s bloom had a devastating effect on animal health and a potential adverse effect on human health.

  • Tom M.

    Dear Joe and Sandy, there are many examples algae problems directly connected to alewives or too many planktivoresm eating the zooplankton that controls the algae no matter how it forms. Corrected by increasing the predators. The current Lake Michigan plan is to reduce predators to increase invasive planktivores (alewives) there is no way this is helping reduce algae blooms, or our invasive species problem.

  • Sandy

    Michigan, Indiana and Ontario need to help – it is not just an Ohio problem. Too many assumptions – too little data.
    The most immediate help is a ban on fertilizer and manure on frozen ground. This should happen in all jurisdictions in the Lake Erie watershed pronto.

  • joe

    If we are to use all the science, should we consider how the lake functioned prior to 1964 versus how it functions now? The first 12,000 years the ice flowed and moved as nature intended. Since then it is forced to remain in place. When I looked at that huge difference I kept asking questions and making obsevations. I wrote “Ice Boom Theory” as an answer to all the major problems I saw. The odds of that are astronomical. It does not happen unless you are correct. Lake Erie is suffering and algae blooms are a symptom. The problem is a stalled conveyor. Google Joe Barrett/Ice Boom for a quick lesson. Thanks, JBB

  • Tom M.

    I came across the zooplankton algae connection, researching invasive species. The facts are undeniable, the alewives alone consume billions of pounds of zooplankton per year, thus removing the algae control from the water. As Gary pointed out people are looking at the phosphous runoff that’s great, we need to look at the zooplankton depletion connection. If we’re gonna use science based, then lets use all the science based options we have have. Sure control the runoff, but there are other problems as well, problems we can control. Mismanagement of our fisheries is a very big part of this.