The Environmental Protection Agency says that summer algae blooms are one of the nation’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems. Summer algae blooms (which derive from excess phosphorus) are currently polluting the nation’s lakes and bays from the Chesapeake to the Pacific Northwest. And it’s game on in what’s going to be a battle to end the problem.
In Tuesday’s blog, I described the overall problem, using Lake Erie as the prime example. More than 30 years ago, the same phosphorus-bred algae blooms famously polluted Erie. Then, it was mostly coming from unregulated municipal and industrial outflows. The Clean Water Act and billions in spending ended it in the 1970s and Erie totally recovered.
Today, the blooms have returned, not just to Erie but in many waterways throughout the country. Moreover, the blooms are bigger than ever and there’s clearly a new primary source.
The EPA announced it’s awarding nearly $9 million in grants to researchers who are trying to manage nutrient pollution that’s created large oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. In typical Rube-Goldbergesque-style, the EPA comes late with too little action and funding.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy says: “These grants will go toward research to help us better manage nutrients and better protect our precious water resources from the dangers of nutrient pollution, especially in a changing climate.” Apparently everyone but the EPA already recognizes the new main culprit. So even though I didn’t get a grant, here are the facts and what should happen without delay.
First, the International Joint Commission oversees water uses in streams and lakes along the border of the United States and Canada. The commission is calling on all states bordered the Great Lakes, particularly Michigan and Ohio, to invoke the Clean Water Act to limit phosphorus pollution from farmland. This commission sees fertilizer swept by from farm land by snow melt and rain as the major source of phosphorus, the prime trigger for algae blooms.
Further, the commission is decisively recommending that crop insurance be tied to farmers’ adoption of practices that limit fertilizer runoff and that Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania even ban most sales of phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers, too. Truth is, however, without new farming practices the latter won’t get it done.
Has there been a change in farming practices recently? You bet. Good old soil plowing is disappearing and “no-till farming” has taken over in which seeds are inserted into small holes in unplowed ground. Then, fertilizing is contracted out to companies that cast pellets onto the bare unplowed ground from trucks — 48 pounds of pellets per acre.
In the past, most fertilizer pellets sank into the plowed soil and stayed there. No more. Rain and snowmelt wash an average 1.1 of those 48 pounds off the unplowed soil and into nearby lakes and streams.
Ohio’s Maumee River is a stark example. Two-thirds of the Maumee’s 137-mile length is farmland. It empties into Lake Erie at Toledo and while it supplies only about 5 percent of Erie’s water, it dumps in 50 percent of the phosphorus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Got an algae-polluted waterway near you? See where its water originates. It’s a scenario that can be repeated anywhere a stream runs through farm land.
Now, for the elephant in the room: corn ethanol. The rush by farmers to plant corn and cash in is no secret. Farmers are planting every acre possible. Moreover, even some 15 million acres of conservation land has been turned into cornfields.
If it weren’t so serious, it would be laughable that the EPA calls algae blooms “one of the nation’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems” while pandering to the ethanol producers with approval to increase ethanol to E15.
It’s past time for the EPA to stand up — admit it screwed up — call on Congress to take up repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard and start up immediate action under the Clean Water Act to mandate needed farming changes. Some examples: require regular soil testing to ensure crops receive only the minimum fertilizer needed; put fertilizer in the ground during planting; prohibit broadcasting pellets in the winter/spring that results in runoff pollution; require land be fallow with increased buffer zones beside streams; and demand conservation land be returned.
As the boating industry, we have a dog in this fight. We better become increasingly engaged and vocal in demanding more immediate action than a few million dollars in research grants.