Congress Missing Chance to Contend with Toxic Algae

Lawmakers need to ramp up regulations in the farm bill or other legislation to combat the problem, experts say.

Algae floats in the water at the Maumee Bay State Park marina in Lake Erie in Oregon, Ohio on Sept. 15, 2017.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Sept. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

Algae blooms are wreaking havoc on industry and aquatic life from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, but lawmakers are on the verge of missing a big opportunity to rein in a major culprit: agricultural runoff.

A bicameral conference over the newest iteration of the farm bill kicked off last week, and environmental advocates, scientists, and some key lawmakers are aiming to secure conservation provisions that help reduce runoff. Those voluntary programs, however, only go so far.

Ramping up agriculture regulations would be the only surefire way to pare down the size and duration of the blooms, which blow past records on a regular basis, according to most water-quality experts.

“This is one of the most critical environmental-quality problems that we face in the United States,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group. “We’re relying entirely on waiting for farmers to volunteer to do something and then helping them with financial and technical assistance to do what they are interested in doing. It’s nowhere near enough to get on top of this problem.”

Farm operations are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act. Cox and other experts argue that fertilizer and manure runoff is sending nitrogen and phosphorous into freshwater bodies, a process called “nutrient loading.” That feeds the freshwater blooms, which are referred to as blue-green algae or cyanobacteria.

Agriculture is far from the only cause. Lawn-fertilizer runoff in developed areas of South Florida and elsewhere also contribute, along with septic systems. And many experts point to changing weather patterns. More rain and warmer temperatures increase runoff and loading risks.

The blooms are expected to get worse before they get better, although cooling temperatures in the coming weeks and months will bring some relief. Environmental advocates fear the freshwater blooms, which resemble sludge, may infiltrate drinking-water supplies and, depending on the digestion extent, lead to fatalities. Algae found its way into the water supply in Salem, Oregon in May, a scenario akin to the 2014 Toledo, Ohio scare that left roughly half a million people without tap water.

Tim Davis, a faculty member at Bowling Green State University and former official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said past blooms in Lake Erie were caused by discharges from industrial operations and wastewater-treatment facilities, leading, at least partially, to the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The blooms today, however, are “absolutely” driven by agricultural runoff, he told National Journal.

“Nowadays in the Great Lakes, the main source of nutrients has switched from point to non-point source, which is obviously primarily agriculture and grow crop agriculture, [like] corn and soybeans,” said Davis. “Regulatory measures in the watershed are going to be critical for a long-term solution.”

Davis and other scientists are calling on Congress to also pass legislation to reauthorize the national harmful algal bloom and hypoxia program, which helps to develop monitoring and forecasting technologies.

Regulatory changes, meanwhile, are all but dead under the Trump administration. Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, are passionate opponents of regulatory overreach, and the administration has aggressively scaled back environmental regulations.

Many farm representatives say more regulations would further threaten bottom lines. Instead, conservation policy for agriculture is based on voluntary programs. The second-highest-ranking House Republican on the farm-bill conference committee, Glenn Thompson, says he prefers to keep it that way.

“I’m largely on the voluntary side because it’s valuable economically for farmers to engage in these practices. And there’s a lot that’s done that they don’t get credit for actually,” Thompson, who represents a farm-heavy Pennsylvania district that borders Lake Erie, said in an interview. “Let’s not blame this all on the people who feed us. When it comes to land management, non-agriculture areas need to be looking as well to be careful about what is going into our watersheds.”

A compromise farm bill would reauthorize dozens of farm programs, including several conservation initiatives designed to incentivize runoff reduction, that are set to expire at the end of this month. The House bill would repeal the conservation-security and conservation-stewardship programs, while the Senate bill would boost payments for some practices under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Both bills would boost funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, but the House bill would bar other programs to contribute to the RCPP, meaning it would authorize $350 million less than Senate version, according to Cox.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the lead farm-bill conferee among Senate Democrats, championed the upper chamber’s approach to conservation.

"The farm bill plays a critical role in preventing algae blooms in the Great Lakes and across the country,” she said in a statement. “The Senate bill will strengthen conservation partnerships, which I authored in the 2014 farm bill to help farmers reduce nutrient runoff and keep our lakes healthy."

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