Algae stinks — and it’s bad for business

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When boaters won’t use their boats because they refuse to plow through guacamole-thick green gunk, it’s a threat to our industry.

When newspapers and TV stations nightly blast pictures of hundreds of dead fish doing the backstroke, it’s a threat to our industry.

When state and local health departments post public notices and “Dangerous Algae, No Swimming” signs on beaches, it’s a threat to our industry.

The algae blooms attacking waterways from the clear lakes of Wisconsin to the ocean shores of Florida are unquestionably toxic for the marine industry. The stink and now-well-publicized health threat of the putrid layers of blue-green algae are keeping people away from the water. In many parts of the country, the Independence Day holiday for boaters wasn’t red, white and blue — it was green.

We can no longer ignore the need to be vocal and engaged in pushing for public policies to eliminate such devastation. Western Lake Erie became a poster child for algae when a water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, made tap water unsafe for the metro area’s 500,000 customers for three days. But studies confirm many of the nation’s smaller, cleaner lakes and rivers will also be in deep trouble if greater efforts are not undertaken now to keep farm fertilizers and other nutrients out of them.

Here’s a discovery that sounds an alarm: Research reported in the scientific journal Ecosphere concluded that once cyanobacteria (another word for harmful blue-green algae) creeps into bodies of water, especially predominantly still bodies, it’s harder to get it out than previously thought. Nitrogen and phosphorus in the algae itself gets recycled and combines with fresh runoff to form even more algae.

The result is a near-perpetual cycle of goopy green stuff that is hard to end. “It starts a runaway train,” lead author and Dartmouth biology professor Kathryn Cottingham said.

It’s time to get our eye squarely on the ball, meaning calling for policies that attack the major problem and rejecting political rhetoric that sidesteps the issue. Like in Florida, for example, where Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency in four Florida counties. But he says the problem stems from septic tanks, so he’ll propose a voluntary program in which homeowners can shift to sewers with local governments paying half the bill. That’s more spin than a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Anyone with any knowledge knows the primary culprit is the phosphorus-laden runoff from Florida’s extensive farming, cattle and politically-powerful sugar industry that eventually comes down rivers to the state’s east and west coasts.

The algae problem now even needs a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “algae-forecasting system” recently developed by Rick Stumpf. He and Dr. Jeff Reutter of Ohio State University have called for at least a 40 percent reduction in runoff of commercially sold farm fertilizers and animal manure in the Buckeye State. Moreover, the high use of fertilizers for growing corn for ethanol production in Middle America has clearly exacerbated the problem.

What’s being done so far falls way short. In Ohio, a bill passed requiring most farmers to undergo training and be certified by the state before they use commercial fertilizers on their fields. But the law doesn’t take effect until 2017, doesn’t mandate farmers use less fertilizer and doesn’t require any inspections to make sure farmers are applying fertilizer correctly. Seriously?

So it’s time to ask these questions: What’s being done to protect the waterways in your marketing area, especially if you’re in an agricultural region, which covers more than half the nation? Are new policies and regulations under serious consideration in your state? Is your national, state or local marine trade association pursuing this issue?

Finally, what are you, as a threatened small-business owner, willing to do to demand effective government funding and policies that will prevent what’s happening? If your area hasn’t seen any waterways subject to algae problems yet, count your blessings. But know they could be coming to a lake near you soon.

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