The Great Lakes’ Sisyphean problem
If protecting the Great Lakes has a connection to mythology, it’s to Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was the Greek king whose daily task in the after-life was to push a boulder to the top of the hill only to have it roll down. Then he’d do it again. In modern culture, a Sisyphean task refers to one that is “endless and ineffective.”
When I read the latest algae and Asian carp news I’m usually reminded of poor Sisyphus. Here’s what I mean.
The USEPA recently awarded Ohio’s Lake Erie Commission $500,000 to study the causes of Lake Erie’s harmful algae blooms. Harmful algae sucks the oxygen out of the water creating dead zones, causes beaches to be closed and forces municipalities to spend more money on water treatment. It has been a major problem in recent years and shows no sign of abating.
But wait a minute.
Wasn’t there a major U.S. and Canada study released in September that laid out Lake Erie’s algae problems and a list of actions that need to take place? It was done by the International Joint Commission – the folks who have official status for providing advice on the Great Lakes’ problems.
Yes there was and it was a good one.
It eschewed soft and diplomatic language in favor of unvarnished, action-oriented recommendations using words like “ban, prohibit and regulate.” And I don’t recall that body of work calling for more study.
Lake Erie’s Sisyphean cousin is the Asian carp.
The U.S. Geological Survey recently announced that grass carp – a relative of Asian carp – had naturally reproduced “within the Lake Erie basin.” The agency said that’s an indication that Asian carp could reproduce in Lake Erie too.
Reaction was swift and predictable.
Environmental groups dusted off talking points calling for action and physical separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River, the primary vector for Asian carp. Politicians cranked out press releases calling for protection for the Great Lakes. Editorial boards published a flurry of opinions echoing the sentiments of the environmentalists and politicians.
But this isn’t new.
In the four years since Asian carp DNA was discovered past the electrical barriers in the Chicago waterways system this scenario has been repeated multiple times. A new carp advance is discovered and alarms are sounded. Advocates, politicians and editors rant and raise red flags. Then the issue goes dormant until the next revelation and the cycle repeats.
Deviation from the script
Every time there’s an algae bloom or Asian carp dustup I try to find a deviation from the script and I did this time.
Sandy Bihn is a Lake Erie Waterkeeper who has lived with the algae problems and she isn’t afraid to speak the truth. She’s tired of the standard prescription of coddling farmers and relying on them to voluntarily reduce phosphorus, the primary cause of algae blooms.
Writing in the Columbus Dispatch, Bihn calls for authorities to set a limit – a Total Maximum Daily Load in official terms – on how much phosphorous Lake Erie can handle. She cites the Chesapeake Bay’s experience in controlling algae where not much happened over decades until limits were established. Voluntary measures didn’t cut it there and won’t for Lake Erie.
Here’s the thing. Everyone knows that Bihn is right but politicians and regulators don’t have the political will to act because that would lead to regulation of farmers in Ohio, and they are loathe to do that.
When the USEPA announced the $500,000 grant to study Lake Erie algae, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur quickly praised the action, saying “dealing with harmful algae blooms must be a top priority.”
I doubt that we’d have heard a peep from Kaptur — one of our Great Lakes “champions” –if the EPA was announcing its intent to regulate farmers to protect Lake Erie. Sometimes our “champions” are so when it’s convenient, like bringing a check to the home state no matter that it may do little to solve the problem.
Similarly, in a meeting of the Great Lakes Advisory Board last week participants danced delicately around mention of the “R” word – regulation – in their recommendations.
The same dynamic has played out with Asian carp. There has been no shortage over the past four years of study on the cost and feasibility of separating the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River. But there has been next to no discussion of finding the billions of dollars to fund it.
The latest carp advance prompted a letter signed by all 16 Great Lakes senators – more “champions” — to the Army Corps of Engineers telling them to pick up the pace on their plan to stop the carp. This type of communication is easy, cheap and isn’t new – agencies are used to getting angry letters from Congress.
But four years after environmental DNA revealed that Asian carp could be in the Great Lakes, we’re still waiting for a study to tell us what to do about one of the biggest threats they face.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of the EPA’s bureaucracy and decision-making process there’s probably a justification of a sort for spending $500,000 to study Lake Erie’s algae.
But since we already know what to do, it’s a continuation of the study and repeat cycle.
That aligns us with Sisyphus’ work: “Endless and ineffective.”