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The EPA Is Dropping the Ball

The Environmental Protection Agency needs to put together an agencywide strategic action plan to halt the out-of-control harmful algae blooms plaguing our waterways.

However, that’s not my opinion, although I fully agree.

It’s the conclusion of the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General: that the agency has failed to get things done. Meanwhile, scientists predict that blooms in recreational waterways, not to mention drinking water sources, will increase as nutrients continue to pour into our lakes and rivers, our climate warms and weather events get increasingly extreme.

There’s no doubt that algae blooms are impacting the waters our boating customers enjoy. And while there are no studies detailing the negative economic impact of reduced boat usage, it’s not rocket science to predict the “no swimming warnings” and the media reports of smelly, green goop will impact the next generation of customers.

The point of the Inspector General’s evaluation was to determine how EPA is exercising its authority under the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts to address blooms and protect our health and the environment.

Harmful algae blooms occur when high levels of nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, enter rivers, lakes and reservoirs. These nutrients come from such sources as livestock operations and farm fertilizer runoff — and to a lesser degree from lawns and gardens, urban stormwater and industrial/municipal discharges.

Congress appointed the EPA Administrator as the leader for federal actions focused on reducing, mitigating and controlling freshwater algae blooms. According to the Inspector General’s report, it was understood that by developing an agencywide strategy, the EPA would improve in four planning areas:

1. purpose, scope and methodology

2. problem definition and risk assessment

3. organizational roles, responsibilities and coordination

4. integration and implementation

The result was expected to lead to the reduction of HABs and their impacts on human health and the environment using the authorities and tools provided by the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts. Further, the Inspector General found that the EPA has not fulfilled its 2015 commitment to Congress to develop additional drinking water health advisories for cyanotoxins associated with some blooms.

Recognize it or not, dealers and customers across the country are being impacted. HABs do not occur only in lakes. A bloom extended 650 miles along the Ohio River hitting six states in 2015, threatening the drinking water of more than 5 million people. Moreover, the cyanotoxins formed by some HABs can be transported farther downstream from the bloom. The EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment, conducted in 2013 and 2014, detected the cyanotoxin microcystin in 37 percent of the 1.2 million miles of rivers and streams assessed.

While we often read about extensive HABs in Lake Erie and Southwest Florida, as well as the lakes of Wisconsin and the 5,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, our nation’s pristine waters are not immune, according to the Inspector General. For example, in July 2020, Utah public health officials warned Zion National Park visitors to stay out of the Virgin River after a dog died from being exposed to a cyanotoxin while swimming. Scientists are working to understand what drives the development of blooms and toxins under such varied conditions.

But of most importance to our boating interests, the EPA needs to take immediate action to issue nitrogen and phosphorus numeric water quality criteria to effectively bring under control the levels of these nutrients running off into waterways. The EPA has failed to get most states to adopt numeric water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus, the two biggest nutrient contributors to the formation of HABs.

And the need for EPA to seriously address the HAB problem isn’t new. Twenty-three years ago, the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 established a task force that included the EPA to assess the ecological and economic consequences of HABs. Further, it was to find alternatives for reducing, mitigating and controlling blooms while assessing the social and economic costs/benefits of such alternatives.

More disconcerting, a 2014 amendment expanded the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act beyond coastal, estuarine and the Great Lakes to include “freshwater harmful algal blooms in lakes, rivers, estuaries (including their tributaries) and reservoirs.” It assigned leadership of the freshwater aspects of the program to the EPA Administrator. There’s even more.

In 2019 a task force was required to complete and submit to Congress a scientific assessment of HABs, including in lakes and rivers, at least every five years, with the first report due in 2024. Given the EPA record so far, expecting this deadline will be met is like thinking the Baltimore Orioles will make the Major League Baseball playoffs this year.

Bottom line: The EPA has failed to show a national leadership role in mitigating freshwater HABs and that must change now.

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