Algae problem is really an ethanol problem

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Mayors from 20 Great Lakes cities in both the U. S. and Canada converged on Chicago recently seeking answers to the growing algae problems plaguing the lakes, particularly Lake Erie, but a real threat to waterways throughout the region.

Last August, the city of Toledo, Ohio, issued an emergency warning to residents — “don’t drink the water” — calling national attention to a serious algae problem in the Great Lakes that’s not only a growing public health problem, but is impacting boating, fishing, tourism and more.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, speaking for the group, said: “Today, my fellow mayors call for more, better and faster action to protect Great Lakes and St. Lawrence (Seaway) residents from the kind of threat that closed down Toledo’s drinking water system. This situation cannot and will not be tolerated as the new normal.”

The mayors want four actions:

• The U.S. EPA should create a common limit on microcystin, the toxin that shutdown Toledo’s water. There should also be a common emergency response protocol when the toxin blooms.

• The Great Lakes states should create a water-quality standard for the acceptable amount of phosphorus in the open waters of the lakes.

• The agricultural industry must further reduce its runoff of nutrients into the waters that feed Lake Erie.

• Cities should further reduce their nutrient loadings through green infrastructure, improved wastewater treatment and pollution prevention.

Sadly, the problem has been developing for several years with little attention from governmental agencies. Hardly a year ago (September 2013) for example, Carroll Township near Toledo detected dangerous levels of microcystin in its water supply, shut down its water plant and simultaneously alerted the community’s 2,000 residents: “Don’t drink the water.”

Microcystin is a toxin produced by the blooms of freshwater algae that chokes the waters and causes nausea, vomiting and liver damage if ingested. It has been known to kill dogs and livestock that drink contaminated water.

When the algae bloom hits during the summer months, it’s as if someone pasted a thick blanket of green muck over the surface. Boating and fishing in it is a huge turnoff. It smells putrid and subsequently creates large “dead zones” that lack oxygen and cannot support any marine life.

To make things worse, it’s not just the Great Lakes that are being impacted. Several inland lakes in Ohio warn people not to swim. Wisconsin issued a warning this summer that algae could occur on any inland lakes at any time.

First, it needs to be called what it is — pollution. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from a discharge pipe or a farm field. Pollution is pollution. Why isn’t U.S. EPA aggressively involved in addressing it?

Second, I’m convinced that the mandate in the nation’s renewable fuel standard for increased ethanol in gas is the main culprit. We know millions of more acres of farmland are being planted in corn solely because of the demand for profitable corn-based ethanol. The ethanol mandate must go.

Third, there should be an immediate focus on reining in the resulting nutrient pollution (phosphorus and nitrogen) from fertilizing the corn, a crop known to require a high rate of fertilizer.

Fourth, steps taken in Ohio this summer are more political cover than genuine problem-solving. For example, a proposal for a two-year study by farming interests on fertilizing. Really? Now that’s kicking the can down the road on steroids in an election year.

Federal involvement hasn’t been any better. So far, the EPA has steered away from applicable pollution regulation (something they’re usually so eager to do), instead funding research and restoration projects through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, funding conservation programs through the farm bill and funding national algal bloom research. Weak, very weak.

Here are some things to recognize: The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River supply drinking water to more than 40 million people in the region. It’s 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Tourism, drawn by the Great Lakes, has a regional economic impact topping $42 billion annually. The region has the largest number of registered recreational boats of any U.S. region. It is flush with marinas and marine businesses employing thousands of people.

Clearly an immediate and all-out program to stop the pollution at its main source is needed and the time is now.

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