A Blooming Problem: Algae across America

Jason Peters, a fisherman in south Florida, has lived on the water his entire life, but a chartreuse green slime that fills the canal next to his house may threaten his livelihood.   In fact, the lives of millions of people around the country are changing because of an alarming increase in algal blooms. “You gotta understand something. I’ve been down here 43 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Peters says of the situation in Florida.

In the summer of 2014, a ban on drinking water had to be issued in Toledo, Ohio due to algae in Lake Erie. In the Gulf of Mexico, algal blooms have caused dead zones larger than the state of New Jersey.   In south Florida, seagrass vital to the local economy is disappearing at a rate so fast that Peters says, “I don’t see the seagrass in Biscayne Bay surviving another five years.” Also, harmful algal blooms in the Everglades have the potential to impact the drinking water supply of 8 million people.

Algal blooms occur when phosphorus and nitrates found in fertilizers get into the water runoff. Algae use these nutrients to create massive blooms that can contain harmful toxins like the bacteria that polluted the drinking water in Toledo last year. When the algae dies, the decomposition of the algae sucks oxygen out of the water, creating a dead zone that kills off fish and other life forms, devastating ecosystems and economies. Due to the 2011 bloom, the Lake Erie charter boat fishing industry, the nation’s largest, was set back $2.4 million, and recent blooms may have cost even more.

The consensus is that agriculture is the main cause of these blooms. In areas like the Lake Erie Watershed, agriculture accounts for 80% of phosphorus input into Lake Erie. This may be due to light regulation of fertilizer management practices in the farming industry across America. Since the mid-1990s, phosphorus input into Lake Erie has been increasing. Compared with 2001 when the phosphorus input for March-June was 509 metric tons, the phosphorus input into the Maumee River Watershed, which flows into Lake Erie, from March-June in 2011 was over four times as large, resulting in a bloom 2 billion cubic meters larger than any Lake Erie had seen before.

Maddie Nolan, a researcher at the University of Michigan, says reversing this trend will be difficult, and thinks we may have crossed the point of no return. She says that phosphorus in lakes has legacy, and in Lake Erie there are “probably hundreds of years worth of phosphorus left in the sediment, which are churned up every spring when lakes mix.”

But many are more optimistic, pointing to the reduction in phosphorus dumping by 90% by the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant in the 1970s, when algal blooms were booming in Lake Erie. This was the “single largest reason” for the reduction of algal blooms in Lake Erie during the 1970s and 1980s according to the EPA. Now, the solution is not so simple. Getting farmers to change their practices in today’s world of huge commercialized farming will take “some kind of adopted standard at the state and federal level,” says Frank Szollosi, Great Lakes Regional Outreach Coordinator of the National Wildlife Federation.

US Representative Bob Latta (R-OH) believes fertilizer regulation should be handled at the state level.   In Ohio, this has been addressed, but legislation has been slow. Senate Bill 1, a bill initially pushed as an emergency measure in 2014, will not go into effect until July. It will prevent the spreading of phosphorus-rich manure on land that is frozen or that is forecasted to receive rain, among other regulations.   A recent manure spill in western Ohio may have been prevented if legislation had been in effect by then. More importantly, the bill will not be in effect until well past the spring planting season, when it would have an impact on phosphorus input. Additionally, the bill is criticized by Szollosi, saying it is a good first step, but it is too narrow in scope. “What we need are performance based policies that target timetables and focus on the end goal.” That goal, according to the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force, is a 40% reduction in yearly phosphorus input in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

If it has taken legislators in Ohio, whose constituents were directly impacted by the negative effects of fertilization, this long to even put a band-aid on the issue, will state legislatures and farmers along the Mississippi River, for example, be eager to adopt new policies when they see no direct consequence? “When you’re talking fertility, your talking money,” says Eric Powlawski, Sustainable Agriculture Educator of the Ohio Farm Association. And he’s right—the Farm Bureau and poultry groups have lobbied intensively with tens of millions against fertilizer regulation, making it unlikely that legislation is passed in most states.

A concern that is being addressed at the federal level is preparedness in the likely case that an algal bloom does occur. Last summer, facilities in the Toledo area did not test the water soon enough, and the tap water in some places was a slimy green.   Szollosi says that after ten years of increased size of algae blooms, “What happened in Toledo wasn’t surprising—what was surprising is that there wasn’t a lot of contingency plans ready to go.” To avoid this, Rep. Latta initiated legislation called the Drinking Water Protection Act in January. On whether it will be passed in time for the upcoming algal bloom season in late summer, according to Latta’s staff, “I can’t make any guarantees, but we are working with the Senate to get this bill passed”.

For thousands of fisherman and others affected by algae, this is an issue worth fighting.  Peters has already started adapting his business to the loss in seagrass due to algae, as he is catching not only fish, but also hunting for frogs that rest on top of algae mats. “If that grass recedes much more, it’s going to affect not only my business, but the commercial fishing industry, the tourist industry, it’ll affect things across the board.”

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About colezingas

Hey I'm Cole, I am very excited to be taking Photobook with all of you! I took an introductory photography class my senior year of high school, in which I got to learn the techniques of photography and play around with film cameras! I'm looking forward to this class so that I can take the next step, and use my photos to create a story.

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