Do NOAA’s $10.2 million grants miss the mark?

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Earlier this month the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration announced it will grant $10.2 million to fund 12 new research projects around the country to better understand and predict harmful algal blooms (HABs) and improve responses to them. Does that amount to another delay in taking obvious actions to reduce the problem now, like the cities in northwest Ohio are demanding?

HABs research is important, no argument, particularly when it might better quantify the sources, their impact and mitigation. But specifically, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS ) will allocate about $8.4 million to cover the first year of new 3- to 5-year projects, while the remaining $1.78 million will go to 3-year projects already in process. Really, 3 to 5 years?

Is NOAA stealing a page from the Congressional inaction handbook written by the lawyers at Dilly, Dally & Delay? In 3 to 5 years hundreds of lakes and rivers around the nation will be swimming in green slime. Moreover, they’re likely to have dead zones similar to the one identified in central Lake Erie or the now iconic and ever growing 8,000 square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The funded projects will begin in Alaska, California, Chesapeake Bay, Florida, the Great Lakes, New England and the Pacific Northwest. That at least acknowledges HABs are everywhere. Grant recipients will conduct research for years, assuming they continue to get funded after this first year, to identify conditions that increase bloom toxicity; model toxin movement from the water into shellfish, fish and marine mammals; and improve toxin monitoring and forecasts. Meanwhile, of course, people are supposed to live with possible contaminated drinking water, fisheries destruction and closures, and a disruptive impact to tourism, quality of life and important recreational activities, like boating.

“Through NCCOS, NOAA is funding the latest scientific research to support environmental managers trying to cope with increasing and recurring toxic algae that continue to affect environmental and human health and coastal economies,” said NCCOS director Steven Thur, PhD. “Improved understanding of these coastal HAB threats will lead to better bloom observation and prediction.”

Predicting HABs is already commonplace. For example, as you read this, southwest Florida is getting hit again. From 2017 to 2019, severe blooms of Karenia brevis, which is known as red tide and is increased by the same phosphorus and nitrogen that fuels HABs, devastated boating and fishing there. Indeed, the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association is currently funding a study quantifying the economic damage to the marine industry there from the previous HABs and red tide. Throughout southwest Florida, that previous episode contributed to the deaths of fish, turtles, marine mammals and birds, while causing neurotoxic shellfish poisoning and respiratory problems for tourists and beachgoers that mostly abandoned going there altogether.

TOLEDO DEMANDS MORE

It’s reaching a boiling point in northwest Ohio where the Maumee River that enters Lake Erie at Toledo accounts for just 5 percent of the water flowing into the lake but contributes a whopping 45 percent of the HABs-causing phosphorus.

According to reports by Laura Johnston, at cleveland.com, officials in the Toledo area have launched a new attack in their ongoing battle against large concentrated animal feeding operations, known major contributors to Lake Erie’s HABs. They’re demanding the Ohio Department of Agriculture require all manure from such facilities get treated to the standards of human-made sewage before it’s spread on fields as fertilizer.

Sadly, agriculture officials appear to have little interest in tying such a requirement to any new or existing permits. Such requirements would require legislation, the ODA claims. And, according to a public records research by the Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, many lawmakers receive big campaign contributions from agricultural interests.

CAFOs confine and raise thousands of animals inside a building rather than allowing them to roam in pastures. Such facilities typically hold hundreds of cows, pigs, chickens, and other livestock under one roof. Further, in Ohio only large operations – for example, more than 700 dairy cows or 10,000 swine under 55 pounds – are even required to register with the ODA. Manure from these operations is usually liquified, stored in lagoons and then spread on fields. There are currently 56 big CAFOs impacting the Lake’s western basin, according to Ohio’s Lake Erie Commission.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, which has joined with Lucas County officials in suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has found 775 hog, cattle, dairy and poultry operations in the broader Maumee River watershed in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Moreover, there’s been a 40 percent increase in CAFOs since 2005. The federal suit alleges EPA is failing to enforce the Clean Water Act by requiring Ohio to adopt a program with mandatory controls on CAFOs and other major sources of runoff.

“It’s cows, it’s pigs, it’s poultry. It’s all of the above. They’re just huge facilities,” said Sandy Bihn, of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper. “And there’s more phosphorus in manure than in any commercial fertilizer.”

To top it off, there are currently four applications filed to build new CAFOs within the basin. If all four permits are granted, it will allow up to 28,800 more swine into the basin, producing millions more gallons of liquid manure a year. According to ODA’s fact sheets, the waste will be spread across cropland “as an organic alternative to commercial fertilizers.” But it’s not rocket science to understand the runoff containing this added phosphorus and nitrogen will end up in Lake Erie!

Finally, during a recent hearing, a federal judge said he couldn’t see how Ohio can meet its pledge under a 2016 pact with Ontario and Michigan to reduce phosphorus by 40 percent by 2025. The state is nowhere near meeting an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

So the quest to end turning our waterways into pea soup mats of scum continues.

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