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Dead zones, algae blooms threaten dealers’ future

As federal and state agencies keep blowing smoke up our kilts, a genuine threat to our industry’s future success continues to grow unchecked. And if the boating industry at all levels doesn’t become more engaged now, we could be writing a prescription for a major decline in boating ahead.

I’m referring to the latest red flag — news that the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is now the largest in history, at an immense 8,776 square miles. Alarmingly, it has grown nearly 50 percent and now would cover the entire state of New Jersey, according to the Washington Post. And without dramatic shifts in farming practices, we’re assured of even bigger problems ahead!

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 in the zones. They’ve shut down crabbing in California and oyster harvests in Louisiana. They’ve turned the surface of popular boating waters from Wisconsin to Florida into blue-green slime that not only stinks, but also can be a toxic human health hazard.

Gee, that should all help sell more people on boating!

Although the boating industry needs to engage more, we need to applaud 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 approve an Ohio EPA declaration that the open waters of the lake 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, a 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 such as Ohio have been favoring dubious steps, such as offering enriching grants to farmers to try to prevent synthetic fertilizers and manure from washing off their fields. 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 are clearly not making 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 such as that of the ELPC to get agencies to come to terms with the need to end algae problems, so be it. And our industry, through national and local marine trades organizations, should be actively supporting such legal actions where and when it can make change occur. And the time is now.

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