Marine News from the Great Lakes

Dead Zones, Algae Blooms Threaten Boating

Published: Tuesday, September 26, 2017
By: Norm Shultz

As federal and state agencies keep blowing smoke up our kilts but doing little else to address the problem, a genuine threat to boating and fishing’s future continues to go unchecked. It’s time all boaters and anglers demanded effective action.

The latest red flag comes from news that the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is now the largest in history at an immense 8,776 square miles. Alarmingly, it’s grown nearly 50 percent and now would cover the entire state of New Jersey. Without dramatic shifts in farming practices, we can be certain of the continual increase in problems within our lakes and waterways across the nation.

Reminder: The dead zones are the result of a nationwide explosion of algae blooms choking waterways with phosphorus and nitrogen. These blooms wipe out the dissolved oxygen in the water, killing all fish and other life caught within the zone. They’ve turned the surface of popular boating waters from Wisconsin to Florida into blue-green slime that not only stinks, but can be a toxic human health hazard.

As boaters, we need to support environmental groups for taking action now. For example, the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Columbus, Ohio, has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have the open waters of Lake Erie declared "impaired" under provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit essentially seeks to overturn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to roll over like a Yorkie begging for a tummy rub and let the Ohio EPA declare that the open waters of Lake Erie are not impaired. (Notably, Michigan, which shares a portion of Lake Erie, has wisely declared the lake impaired.)

The ELPC suit cites the 2014 algae blooms that poisoned the Toledo water supply of hundreds of thousands of people who were told not to drink the water.

“U.S. EPA illegally gave Ohio a pass on its obligation to recognize that harmful algal blooms are impacting more than just a few limited areas of Lake Erie,” said Madeline Fleisher, staff attorney for the ELPC. “The impairment designation is a key first step in the Clean Water Act’s process for addressing serious water quality issues. Without the impairment designation, Ohio is likely to continue relying on unenforceable, voluntary measures to reduce phosphorus pollution that won’t do enough to fix the problem," Fleisher told the Sandusky Register.

Fleisher is spot on. States like Ohio have been favoring dubious actions, like offering enriching grants to farmers who voluntarily prevent synthetic fertilizers and manure from washing into waterways. Specifically, between 2008 and 2015, big manure-generating animal feed operations in the western Lake Erie watershed cashed in over $16.8 million in direct payments, cost-shares, and other subsidies from the U. S. Department of Agriculture. But the voluntary measures have failed to make even modest dents in nutrient pollution. Can anyone say it’s time to stop pandering to the farm lobby?

Could mandatory actions work? Absolutely. The Chesapeake Bay is a good example. It has experienced marked improvement and success with a federally-enforced plan that can impose actions across the bay's 64,000-square-mile multi-state watershed.

If it takes lawsuits like that of the ELPC to get agencies to take effective action, so be it. And we, as boaters and fishermen, should be actively supporting such legal actions where and when they can make change occur. The time is now.

tags: Environmental Impact, Law & Politics

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