By Valerie Vande Panne
In February, the voters of Toledo, Ohio, passed a ballot initiative that gives Lake Erie and those who rely on the lake's ecosystem a bill of rights. The idea is to protect and preserve the ecosystem so that the life that depends on it — humans included — can have access to safe, fresh drinking water.
On the surface, it seems pretty logical: Humans need water to survive, and if an ecosystem that is relied on for water—in this case, Lake Erie — is polluted (in this case, with algae), then the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (or LEBOR) would ensure the rights of humans would come before the polluters (in this case, big agriculture).
Except, that's not what's happening.
Rather, in a perhaps unsurprising move, the state of Ohio has at once both acknowledged rights of nature to exist, and taken them away, with a line written in, of all things, the state budget: "Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas."
"It's not surprising that the Ohio legislature has the shameful distinction of being the first in the country to specifically name ecosystem rights — trying to quash them rather than taking the lead in recognizing them," the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which was involved in the initiative and is experienced with rights of nature laws and actions, said in a press release. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights has received international acclaim.
Last week, a judge ruled Toledoans for Safe Water, the local group behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, cannot defend the voter-passed initiative in a lawsuit brought by a factory farm against the city over the initiative. Yet, the state of Ohio is being permitted to support the farm in the lawsuit against the city.
Big agriculture, of course, is the primary source of nutrient pollution that has caused algae blooms that have denied half a million people access to clean, safe drinking water, sometimes for days at a time.
Markie Miller, Toledo resident and concerned citizen with Toledoans for Safe Water, said the new barriers to implementing LEBOR shows the citizens are on to something. "Obviously we're doing something right, because we're scaring the Farm Bureau."
As the lawsuit is set to proceed as of this writing, the judge said there was no need for the two sides (the farm or the city) to file briefs, and would, rather than hold a hearing, have a phone call on May 17. The call would be closed to the public, and without briefs, the public — who passed the initiative by more than 60 percent of the vote — will not have access to the arguments being used.
Meanwhile, according to a recent report released by the United Nations, "one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival," the Washington Post reported.
The report specifically attributes the die-off to human activity. Worse, it points to an inevitable collapse of the natural world humans rely on for food and water.
"Nature's current rate of decline is unparalleled, and the accelerating rate of extinctions 'means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely,'" reported the Washington Post.
"All the studies say we need drastic action. If we think the courts are going to save the plants or the animals," said Tish O'Dell, Ohio community organizer with CELDF, "they aren't."
O'Dell points to the fact that the people who passed the law aren't part of the lawsuit trying to prevent its implementation, and to the fact that the state of Ohio is intervening on the side of the factory farm, "Not on the side of the people — and denies the people and the lake the right to intervene."
Laws should reflect our values, O'Dell continues. She supports a culture shift to curb the rapid decline of the natural world humans rely on. The change may take time, O'Dell said, saying, "It's like [with] segregation. That lunch counter moment, it wasn't in the courts. It was the pushing and the pushing," that shifted the courts. "That's what we have to do. As we get more and more people saying nature should have rights, doing their own laws and their own actions, it'll start shifting things."
While this shift could take time, we don't have 150 years to push or wait for nature to have the right to exist.
"We talk about climate change. It's climate crisis. In my opinion, they're committing crimes against humanity. It's homicide and ecocide. We have the scientific studies these species will go extinct. It's homicide because humans won't be able to live," O'Dell said. "We need to start getting more blunt about what is happening."
"People think the corporation is the problem," she continued, but cautions against blaming the farming industry or the oil and gas industries for our current situation: "It's your own government that's the problem, because they're protecting them."
It seems, then, we are in a time when corporations are considered people and their rights are preserved, and the rights of people — actual humans — to have access to the single thing they absolutely must have to survive, clean drinking water — are denied.
"If they think they've prevented this movement, all they've done is fired people up," Miller added.
Valerie Vande Panne is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, Politico, and many other publications.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
By Julia Conley
Tired of receiving notices warning that their drinking water may have been compromised and having little recourse to fight corporate polluters, voters in Toledo, Ohio on Tuesday approved a measure granting Lake Erie some of the same legal rights as a human being.
Sixty-one percent of voters in Tuesday's special election voted in favor of Lake Erie's Bill of Rights, which allows residents to take legal action against entities that violate the lake's rights to "flourish and naturally evolve" without interference.
interesting legal development: yesterday, voters in Toledo, Ohio, voted to give #LakeErie legal rights - seeking to… https://t.co/Pm0nlmFt19— Sébastien Duyck 🌍⚖️ (@Sébastien Duyck 🌍⚖️)1551276755.0
Toledoans for Safe Water led a years-long campaign to convince voters that their city's charter must be amended to ensure that the "environmental burden" carried by the lake, which provides drinking water to 12 million Americans and Canadians, must be reduced.
"Beginning today, with this historic vote, the people of Toledo and our allies are ushering in a new era of environmental rights by securing the rights of the Great Lake Erie," said Markie Miller of Toledoans for Safe Water in a statement.
Under the Bill of Rights, residents will now have legal standing in court to sue corporate polluters on behalf of Lake Erie and to seek damages which would be used to rid the lake of pollution.
The initiative was modeled on "rights to nature" laws which have passed in Lafayette, Colorado; by the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma and the Chippewa Nation in Minnesota; and countries including India and Nepal.
Toledoans for Safe Water began their campaign in 2016 in response to a drinking water crisis in the area two years earlier. Five hundred thousand residents of the Toledo area were advised not to drink or use their tap water for three days due to a toxic algae bloom that had been detected in the water system.
"People need to start relying on our democracy to hold polluters accountable," Mike Ferner of another local group, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie (ACLE), told the Toledo Blade. "Regulatory agencies have not been doing their jobs for a long time. We're still going to try to get them to do what they're supposed to do. But there's no reason to be limited just to that if there are creative approaches out there such as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights."
The groups were up against the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, which argued that businesses and farmers may now face high costs of complying with the new law and legal bills if they pollute Lake Erie.
"What Toledo voters and other places working on rights of nature are hoping is to not only change laws but to change culture," Tish O'Dell, an organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which assisted the local campaigners, told The Progressive. "So much of our way of thinking about our relationship with nature has to change. We are not separate from nature but part of nature. Nature is living and that right to thrive, flourish and be healthy needs to be recognized. Nature doesn't need us to survive but we need nature to survive."
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Toxic algal blooms occur when chemical pollution from farms and other sources runs off into waterways, forming a thick, green, soup-like substance on the surface. The blooms are hazardous to human health and can even kill pets. And they can make tap water unsafe to drink, as residents of Toledo, Ohio, learned in 2014, when a massive bloom blanketed Lake Erie and invaded the city's water supply.
"Toledo was a wake-up call for many people," said Craig Cox, EWG's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. "It was the first major city to declare its water supply unsafe for human consumption due to a toxic algal bloom. But many more Americans are experiencing the damage these blooms can wreak—and the problem is getting worse."
No government entity tracks blooms nationwide, but EWG's analysis of news coverage and satellite imagery found that, since 2010, nearly 300 blooms have been recorded in lakes, rivers and bays in 48 states. The problem has grown exponentially during that period: 169 toxic blooms were reported in 40 states in 2017, compared to only three blooms in 2010.
The EWG report includes an interactive map of 288 blooms, as well as before-and-after satellite photos of 24 blighted lakes in 12 states and a short video about the Lake Erie bloom, which is now an annual phenomenon. And Lake Erie isn't the only place with a reliable yearly bloom—in recent years federal regulators began issuing an annual "bloom forecast" for some coastal states and plan to expand the program.
Toxic algal blooms have erupted in every state. In California, state agencies recently raised alarm about the problem, noting 141 public health alerts by state and local authorities in 2017 alone. In 2016, Florida declared a state of emergency in four counties inundated by a huge bloom.
Algal blooms can cause fish die-offs and harm other marine life, and they can devastate local economies by curbing tourism and recreational activities like swimming, fishing and boating. Blooms often reach their peak in the summer, but can also occur well into the fall and winter. In many places, they are forming earlier each year. Changing weather patterns associated with climate change exacerbate the issue.
What's usually referred to as blue-green algae are actually photosynthetic organisms called cyanobacteria. And not all algal blooms are toxic. They become dangerous when they create byproducts such as microcystin, the toxin that contaminated Toledo's water. Short-term exposure to microcystins through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation can cause sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer, liver failure and sperm damage.
While algal blooms can happen naturally, the recent spike is indisputably linked to pollution from farms. When fertilizer and animal manure run off into lakes, streams and bays, chemicals—including phosphorous—can spur the unchecked growth of cyanobacteria, particularly in warm weather.
"Farmers are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act," Cox said. "And the rising number of blooms is directly related to the staggering intensification of crop and livestock production. Farmers get billions of taxpayer dollars each year through federal farm and insurance subsidies. It's more than fair to ask them to take steps to prevent pollution in return for such generous support from their fellow citizens."
Simple techniques like planting strips of grass next to streams and applying fertilizer using precision methods can cut water pollution from farms.
"Voluntary programs alone aren't getting the job done. It is far past time to expect landowners to meet basic standards of caring for their land and our water," Cox said.
At two hearings last month, Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt was repeatedly asked by lawmakers from Ohio about the EPA's plans to combat algal blooms under its authority from the Clean Water Act.
Algal blooms often resemble foamy mats, floating on the water. They can look like pea soup or spilled paint, often green, or blue-green in color. Without analyzing the water sample in a lab, it is impossible to know whether or not the bloom is harmful. To ensure the safety for yourself and your pets, it is best to avoid water that appears to have any blooms.
One unfortunate example is when 16-month-old black lab, Alex, was swimming in a reservoir that, unbeknownst to his owner, had an outbreak of harmful algae. Alex later collapsed and was immediately rushed to the vet. Unfortunately, despite treatment, he died five hours later from cyanobacteria neurotoxins, one of the toxins found in algal blooms.
"Dogs can be particularly susceptible to the effects of [harmful algal blooms] because of their behavior, sometimes drinking water from ponds, lakes and streams; cleaning their wet fur; and consuming algal mats or scum with attractive odors," N.Y. Sea Grant Fisheries and Ecosystem Health Specialist, Jesse Lepak told Great Lakes Today.
Toxic algal blooms can be found in more than 20 states. Beaches in South Florida were covered last summer by a toxic algae sludge, prompting Florida Gov. Rick Scott to declare local states of emergency. California and Utah were heavily affected last year as well, and the Great Lakes region is known to have an over abundance of harmful blooms. In 2014, the Western Lake Erie Basin had its most intense bloom of toxic algae ever recorded, which shut down water supplies for nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio.
The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research are working to identify factors that influence toxic algal blooms, as well as developing methods to forecast outbreaks. So, while there are steps being taken to resolve this issue, it is important that people are aware of the problem.
NOAA suggests to keep your dog on a leash to prevent them from swimming in or drinking potentially dangerous water. However, if your dog does come into contact with potentially toxic water, be sure to keep an eye out for the following symptoms:
- repeated vomiting
- diarrhea or bloody stool
- loss of appetite
- yellowing of eye whites
- dark urine
- stumbling, seizures, convulsions, paralysis
- excessive salivation
- disorientation, inactivity or depression
- difficulty breathing
- skin rashes/hives
According to regulatory filings obtained by Sierra Club Ohio, on April 13, 2 million gallons of drilling fluids spilled into a wetland adjacent to the Tuscarawas River in Stark County. The next day, another 50,000 gallons of drilling fluids released into a wetland in Richland County in the Mifflin Township. The spills occurred as part of an operation associated with the pipeline's installation.
Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners is the same operator behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the Rover Pipeline's construction in February. The 713-mile pipeline will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada, and crosses three major rivers, the Maumee, Sandusky and Portage, all of which feed into Lake Erie. The pipeline is designed to transport 3.25 billion cubic feet of domestically produced natural gas per day.
Completion of the Rover Pipeline is planned for November 2017. Energy Transfer spokeswoman Alexis Daniel told Bloomberg that the spills will not change the project's in-service date.
"Once the incidents were noted, we immediately began containment and mitigation and will continue until the issues are completely resolved," she said.
Environmental groups are fighting to stop the pipeline's construction.
"Construction just began just a few weeks ago, yet Energy Transfer has already spilled more than 2 million gallons of drilling fluids in two separate disasters, confirming our worst fears about this dangerous pipeline before it has even gone into operation," said Jen Miller, director of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club.
"We've always said that it's never a question of whether a pipeline accident will occur, but rather a question of when. These disasters prove that the fossil fuel industry is unable to even put a pipeline into use before it spills dangerous chemicals into our precious waterways and recreation areas.
"Construction on the Rover Pipeline must be stopped immediately, as an investigation into Energy Transfer's total failure to adequately protect our wetlands and communities is conducted."
Ohio governmental officials will be releasing an updated report about a two-square-mile toxic blob at the bottom of Lake Erie that might be spreading perilously close to a water intake pipe that supplies drinking water for the city of Cleveland.
Lake Erie's toxic sediment is a potential threat to city of Cleveland's drinking water.Stefanie Spear
According to The Plain Dealer, the new report is expected for release later this fall and is based on new tests taken nearby a section of the lake bottom known as Area-1, located about nine miles off the coast. Prior Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests of the tainted plot from 2014 and 2015 revealed levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that were much higher than elsewhere in Lake Erie. These highly toxic chemicals can harm or kill aquatic life and can cause cancer in humans.
Lake Erie's toxic blob is the result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dumping of dredged and untreated sludge from the polluted Cuyahoga River shipping channel in the 1970s. The disposal took place before the Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted.
The mass is located about five miles from an intake valve for the Nottingham Water Treatment Plant, which supplies drinking water to parts of Cuyahoga County—Ohio's most populous county. It is unclear how fast the blob is moving or if it will actually reach the pipe.
Two-square-mile blob sitting at the bottom of Lake Erie could be spreading.Ohio EPA / The Plain Dealer
The Ohio EPA said in May that the city's water is being monitored and is safe.
Kurt Princic, chief of EPA's Northeast Ohio District, said PCBs or PAHs have not been detected so far at the Nottingham water plant, The Plain Dealer reported.
However, this doesn't mean that the situation won't change.
"I'm no more satisfied now than I ever was that we have dispelled the fact that we have toxic sediment moving toward our drinking water," Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler told The Plain Dealer. "We need conclusive evidence. We need more samples so that we will know, once and for all, whether this substance is moving."
"We need the U.S. EPA's help to develop an analysis and a strategy to determine if it is migrating and whether it is a threat to drinking water," Princic added.
Former Army Corps Brigadier General Richard Kaiser denies claims that the toxic sediment is spreading or that it's a threat to the city's drinking water. He told The Plain Dealer that Army Corps scientists assured him that waves cannot influence sediment 60 feet underwater except during extreme storm events, adding that the EPA's testing methods and reports were "critically flawed."
However, Butler has refuted this view, citing EPA's tests indicating that the toxic sediment has indeed spread from the original dumping site from wind currents and storms.
#Glyphosate Sprayed on GMO Crops Linked to Lake Erie's Toxic Algae Bloom | #OrganicNews via @EcoWatch https://t.co/NfQcuyX5yf— Soil Association (@Soil Association)1467811332.0
By Karen Chapman
For a month now, South Florida Atlantic beaches have been blanketed by a sickly green, toxic algae sludge that has kept tourists away and businesses reeling.
Florida has a bigger headache this summer than most states, but algae blooms are hardly unique.
Last week, more than 100 people were sickened by toxic algae in a Utah lake fed by agricultural runoff and treated sewage water. Algae-soiled beaches are a perennial health threat in China and the Baltic region. And just two summers ago, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced the City of Toledo to ban city water for nearly half a million residents.
We know that climate change is further exacerbating our algae problem—but also that there are ways to reduce the runoff that causes water quality issues and kills marine life, year after year.
Algae blooms can be minimized and maybe even prevented if we scale up existing efforts to improve fertilizer use and soil health management—practices that can also save farmers money and boost their yields.
Two Efforts to Curb Runoff Ready to Scale
Two initiatives and private-sector partnerships are making significant headway today. If these efforts are replicated at scale, they could have a national—and even international—impact.
Thanks, in large part, to Walmart's demand for more sustainable grains, food companies such as Campbell's Soup, Unilever, Smithfield Foods and Kellogg's are helping the farmers in their supply chain to reduce fertilizer runoff through a rapidly growing program called SUSTAIN.
Spearheaded by the ag retail cooperative United Suppliers, the plan is to have 10 million acres of farmland using best practices for fertilizer management and soil health by 2020.
Precision agriculture tools can help farmers meet the growing demand for sustainably grown grains, but it's difficult to tell which tools perform as advertised. That's why we developed NutrientStar, an independent program that assesses the fertilizer efficiency claims of products on the market.
'Guacamole-Thick' Algae Takes Over Florida's Atlantic Coast, 4 Counties Declare State of Emergency https://t.co/r3n8BhYXD4 @TheCCoalition— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1467538505.0
What Will It Take?
Supply chains are a powerful tool for igniting change. Companies can signal that fertilizer efficiency and good soil management are not just good for the environment, but also for improving water quality, protecting aquatic species and helping a farmer's yields and bottom line.
But to get a handle on our growing algae problem in the U.S. and overseas, there is no one silver bullet.
We need more food companies to embrace sustainable sourcing, ag retailers to replicate the SUSTAIN model in order to reach millions of growers and farmers to use NutrientStar to understand how tools perform in the field. Agricultural policies must also align with and accelerate, adoption of conservation best practices.
To turn these initiatives into tangible environmental improvements, we must work with and not against farmers and agribusiness. The people who feed our rapidly growing population—and the companies that support them—are and must be, our most important allies.
By Codi Kozacek
A year after the most intense bloom of toxic algae on record engulfed Lake Erie, the lake is set to get a reprieve this summer. Federal forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict this year's bloom will register a 5.5 in severity, about half the level recorded last year and significantly less than the bloom in 2014 that shut down water supplies for nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio.
A satellite image captured on July 15, 2016 shows the beginning of an algal bloom. Forecasters predict this summer's bloom will be much smaller than the record-setting bloom last year.MODIS / NOAA CoastWatch
Still, work to rid the shallowest Great Lake from the annual blooms that contaminate drinking water, close beaches and create aquatic "dead zones" is far from over, warned researchers and water managers gathered at Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory last week. Hundreds of metric tons of phosphorus, a nutrient contained in fertilizer, manure and sewage, continue to wash down the Maumee River each year into Lake Erie's western basin, where the influx fuels the bloom of blue-green algae.
The small size predicted for this year's bloom is more a function of dry weather in the Maumee Basin rather than big reductions in phosphorus. Just as record rains in the basin last year triggered a massive bloom, dry conditions this spring meant less water to carry phosphorus off the land and into the lake. As a result, total "loads" of the type of phosphorus that can be used by algae are expected to be about one-third the amount washed into the lake last year.
"The reality is that rain is really driving our loads at this point in time," said Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University, which tracks the nutrients flowing into Lake Erie.
Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Bloom Forecast for Summer 2016 https://t.co/rXMaGvslHG @greenpeaceusa @HuffPostGreen— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1465869308.0
That means one dry year with a small algal bloom does not indicate the problem is solved. It will take a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus flowing down the Maumee and other Lake Erie tributaries to control the blooms in the long-run, according to new targets adopted in February by the U.S. and Canada. Further, the blooms in Lake Erie are just one facet of the burgeoning nutrient pollution problem across the nation and the globe. Attention this year is focused on the noxious blooms along Florida's Treasure Coast, where the state's governor declared a state of emergency in June. But blooms also plague Green Bay in Lake Michigan, Lake Taihu in China and the Murray-Darling River in Australia. The oxygen-depleted aquatic dead zones created when blooms die regularly form in Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.
Spurred by the poisoning of Toledo's drinking water supply in 2014—and a history of algal blooms dating to the mid-20th century—the research and management efforts being implemented in the Lake Erie watershed to curb phosphorus runoff are an important guidepost for these other systems.
"This is a state, country and global issue," said Chris Winslow, interim director of Stone Laboratory. "We're at the cutting edge of many of these studies right now. A lot of this is going to inform what a lot of people do throughout the country."
A Plan for Lake Erie
Over the past year and following decades of study, the Great Lakes states and provinces took their first concrete steps toward curbing phosphorus pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. An agreement signed between the premier of Ontario and the governors of Ohio and Michigan last June set an ambitious goal to cut phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025. It also set the interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020. The state-level commitment was followed by the adoption in February of 40 percent reduction targets under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). While there is no timeline under the GLWQA, it does require the U.S. and Canada to develop domestic action plans by 2018 outlining how they will make the phosphorus cuts.
To meet those goals, land and water managers will need to focus on reducing runoff from farms in the Maumee River Basin, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan. While stormwater runoff, discharges from municipal wastewater plants and septic systems can all contribute phosphorus, scientists estimate nearly 85 percent of the phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie from the Maumee comes from farm fertilizers and manure.
The study, released in April, analyzed a variety of agricultural management scenarios using watershed models to estimate how the practices would affect phosphorus discharges. In general, it found that agricultural practices meant to trap phosphorus on land will need to be widely adopted and that better results occur when those practices are targeted on land that currently releases high levels of phosphorus.
Specifically, only two scenarios achieved the new targets outlined under the GLWQA. The first would require the conversion of 50 percent of cropland to uncultivated grassland and is considered highly unrealistic.
The second would require the subsurface application of phosphorus fertilizers on half of the cropland that currently loses the most phosphorus. That prevents the fertilizer from sitting on top of the soil, where it can be washed off by rain. The scenario also calls for the use of rye cover crops and the installation of "medium quality" buffer strips on 50 percent more cropland than implements these practices now. Cover crops store the phosphorus in their roots and leaves, keeping it out of the soil so it cannot wash away, while "buffer" strips of vegetation slow the rain running off of fields, filtering out phosphorus before it reaches streams. As of 2013, approximately 8 percent of farms in the Maumee watershed used a rye cover crop and 35 percent of farms used buffer strips.
In a demonstration of agriculture's important role in reducing phosphorus, the study also examined a scenario in which all point sources of phosphorus—those that come out of a pipe, such as from a municipal wastewater plant—were eliminated completely. In that scenario, total phosphorus was reduced by just 5 percent and dissolved reactive phosphorus—the kind most usable by algae—was reduced by 10 percent.
"The 40 percent [target] is doable, but it's going to be a heavy lift," said Gail Hesse, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Water Program, speaking at the Stone Laboratory event. "It's going to need a steep investment and a steep ramp-up in our efforts to reach that target."
Codi Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She writes The Stream, Circle of Blue's daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
Florida's algae problem is the latest reminder that we must act now to protect our waters and combat climate change.
It's as thick as guacamole, but you don't want it near your chips. You don't want it in your water, either, but that's exactly where it is, a sprawling mat of toxic algae the size of Miami, spreading out across Florida's storied Lake Okeechobee and from there along major rivers to the state's Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
Lake Okeechobee's blue-green algae bloom is visible from space.National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Fish are dying. Beaches are closing. People are getting sick.
"The smell is so bad it will make you gag," Mary Radabaugh told officials at a town hall meeting last week near Palm Beach. "We have red eyes and scratchy throats."
Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in affected areas and is pleading with Washington for assistance to cope with widespread threats to the environment and public health.
"South Florida is facing a crisis," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, wrote in a letter July 6 to U.S. Senate leaders. "Beaches and waterways that would normally have been crowded this past Fourth of July weekend were empty as families and vacationers heeded warnings to avoid the toxic blue-green and brown algae blooms that have formed along the waterways and even out into the Atlantic Ocean."
'Guacamole-Thick' Algae Takes Over Florida's Atlantic Coast, 4 Counties Declare State of Emergency https://t.co/r3n8BhYXD4 @TheCCoalition— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1467538505.0
The algae blooms that have thrown the Sunshine State into crisis are telling us three things. First, we need to protect our waters from the pollution that breeds these toxic blooms. Next, we need to fight the climate change that brings warmer temperatures that amp up algae growth. And finally, we need to demand real action on both fronts from our elected leaders at every level.
Algae blooms are a national problem. In recent years, we've seen them in water bodies as large as Lake Erie. There are a perennial problem near the mouth of the Mississippi River, where algae blooms strip oxygen from the water, creating a dead zone that threatens shrimp, fish, crabs and other marine life across a span of ocean the size of Connecticut in the rich fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico. They're a growing threat to our environment and health.
The immediate cause of the blooms can vary, but the common basics are these: Rains wash pollution from farms, septic tanks and other sources into our waters—from small streams and wetlands to great rivers and lakes—and municipal sewage systems add waste to these waters. These pollutants then supercharge the waters with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. That feeds a population explosion for algae that feast on these nutrients. Warmer temperatures accelerate the growth.
Algae blooms, though, are toxic. Cyanobacteria is what scientists call them and they can cause skin and respiratory ailments as well as gastrointestinal and liver illness. In large doses, they can even threaten the nervous system. Humans can be affected by coming in direct contact with the algae; swallowing water at the lake, river or ocean; or even breathing water spray in which algae are growing.
Bloom in Lake Okeechobee https://t.co/e9oIOxcqec #NASA https://t.co/tLSPUFbCss— NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)1467813603.0
These toxins threaten marine life, birds and other wildlife as well. In addition, when algae die they decay, a process that robs water of oxygen, which can cause mass fish kills. Finally, a mat of algae like the one covering much of Lake Okeechobee starves underwater plant life of needed sunlight, in turn denying food to fish and other species dependent on those plants.
The fix is to set commonsense limits that keep pollution out of our waters and then to enforce those limits. That means requiring cities and towns to do a better job treating sewage and keeping it from entering the watershed after heavy rains. It means stopping large, concentrated animal feeding operations from dumping massive amounts of waste into our waters. It means applying standards to prevent industrial agricultural operations from polluting our waters with fertilizer that runs off their fields. And it means fighting the climate change that is warming our waters, helping to turn modest seasonal algae growth into crisis-level blooms.
We just wrapped up the hottest June ever recorded in the contiguous U.S.—a blistering 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average. Last year was the hottest year globally since record keeping began in 1880 and this year's first five months have been even hotter. Nineteen of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past 20 years.
Turning this around means shifting away from the dirty fossil fuels that are driving global climate change and investing in cleaner, smarter ways to power our future without imperiling the planet. The algae blooms in Florida are a reminder of how much this matters and how urgently we must act.
By Jeff Alexander
The federal government is winning the battle to keep Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, according to an Obama administration official.
Cameron Davis, the Obama administration’s point person on Great Lakes issues, told a group of conservation leaders this week that the government has stopped the advance of Asian carp, which—depending on whom you believe—are either 50 miles from Lake Michigan or already in the lake.
“We’re winning the war on Asian carp,” Davis said on Feb. 29 during a White House Great Lakes Summit, which was held in conjunction with Great Lakes Days in Washington, D.C.
Government crews are “beating back” the advance of Asian carp in the Chicago Waterway System, the network of manmade canals that form an artificial link between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, Davis said.
His claim was met with a stunned silence from the group of scientists and conservation leaders (including several from National Wildlife Federation) who were invited to participate in the Great Lakes Summit.
The reason—Researchers have repeatedly found traces of Asian carp DNA in Chicago-area waters with direct connections to Lake Michigan. Those findings suggest Asian carp have breached an electric fish barrier in the Chicago Waterway System and reached the southern fringe of Lake Michigan.
Faster action needed on separating Great Lakes, Mississippi River basins
The Obama administration has spent more than $100 million over the past two years to fight Asian carp and plans to spent another $50 million this year. That level of support is commendable.
Asian carp—which eat like hogs, breed like mosquitoes and leap out of the water when disturbed by the sound of boat motors—could decimate the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery and pose potentially lethal hazards to boaters in the region.
If the president wants to pull out all the stops in the fight against Asian carp, he must speed up efforts to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently moving at a snail’s pace as it studies how best to prevent Asian carp in the Mississippi River system from invading the Great Lakes. The Corps plans to study the issue for at least three more years before recommending solutions.
Experts have said that separating Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River is the only sure way to prevent Asian carp and other harmful invasive species from moving between the two basins.
The Great Lakes Commission produced a report in January that offered three options for breaking the artificial connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin.
The looming threat
Currently, there are no reproducing populations of Asian carp in the Great Lakes. But individual Asian carp have been found in Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Chicago-area waters connected to Lake Michigan.
Given the mounting evidence of Asian carp lurking in southern Lake Michigan, it’s premature for government officials to claim they are winning the war against this menacing species of fish. Worse, it’s tempting fate.
For more information, click here.
The summer 2011 algal bloom outbreak in the western section of Lake Erie was the worst ever recorded according to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation. Researchers have different opinions on what caused this “perfect storm” of algal growth this summer, but all agree that immediate action must take place to prevent this from happening again.
Akron’s Coventry Middle School students have been studying this environmental catastrophe through their Disney Planet Challenge project, What is an algal bloom?...You are about to enter the Dead Zone! Disney’s Planet Challenge (DPC) is a project-based learning environmental competition for classrooms across the U.S. DPC teaches kids about science and conservation while empowering them to make a positive impact on their communities and planet.
Coventry students have been working with Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Surface Water Division and participating in several labs on nutrient overloading. Community involvement will include “storm drain marking” on a minimum of 25 storm drains throughout the village.
The students held a fishing derby at the Division of Wildlife Fish Hatchery in Portage Lakes. Student Adam Marsh attended the derby with his mother and 2 siblings, stating that the reason he participated in the event “was to have fun and enjoy the outdoors in a clean and safe environment.” The students visited the Ohio State’s Aquatic Research Facility on Gibraltar Island observing the algal bloom first hand and completing water quality testing and stream monitoring.
Middle School students realize the economic and recreational significance of Lake Erie and hope to bring this ecological disaster to the forefront of environmental issues. Teachers Chris Lorence and Jim Trogdon are the coordinators of the project. Trogdon states, “The first step in solving any problem is to make people aware of the current situation and then take action. This is the goal of our project.” Coventry Middle School students are actively working with a variety of resources including the Ohio Division of Wildlife, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio State’s Aquatic Research Center, Stone Lab, Underwriter’s Laboratories and Ohio EPA Surface Water Division of Summit County.
Alec McClellan, President of Good Nature Organic LawnCare, partnered with Coventry Middle School to help promote the students’ Disney Project. Good Nature will donate $30 to the school’s outdoor education program for anyone who signs up for a full lawncare program. For more information, call Good Nature Organic Lawncare at 216-285-1881.
Best of luck to these young environmentalists as they continue their work.
Disney’s Planet Challenge is a free, project-based environmental program that empowers students to make a difference in school, at home and in their local communities.
For more information, click here.
by Kristy Meyer
Some decision-makers apparently need a refresher course on clean water.
From the mid-1800’s to the late 1960’s, many rivers around the U.S. caught on fire, including Ohio’s mighty Cuyahoga River. The cause? Uncontrolled dumping of pollution.
In the 1930’s, algal blooms became a nuisance in the Great Lakes. A 1953 report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources concluded that “long periods of pollution barriers to fish existed in the form of toxic material or deficient oxygen.” In the 1960’s and 1970’s, scientists declared Lake Erie to be biologically “dead.” As a result, Congress and the U.S. and Canada passed two historic pieces of legislation—the federal Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Our lakes and rivers rebounded. People flocked to Lake Erie and other waterways to fish, swim and boat. Small businesses dependent on the fishery and water-based recreation flourished. The number of coastal marine businesses along Lake Erie’s coast has more than doubled from 207 in 1977 to 425 today. In 1975, there were 34 charter boat captains. Today, there are about 800 of these small business owners.
Take home message? Clean water is part of the equation that yields good jobs and recreation.
Today, many decision-makers in Congress want to gut the Clean Water Act. They want to stop any federal agency from protecting our waterways from increased pollution. These politicians claim they are acting in the name of jobs and the economy. They apparently think that clean water strangles jobs and recreation.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 90 percent of Ohio’s population receives its drinking water from small and/or seasonal streams. Yet Congress is threatening to strip these streams of protections that have existed for 40 years under the Clean Water Act. If Congress abandons these streams, it will leave them vulnerable to being filled and polluted.
Some of our nation’s leaders actually think that Americans should chose between their family’s health and the health of our economy. As a trained scientist, I know that life itself depends on clean air and water. As a co-breadwinner, I know that my husband and children depend on a thriving economy. And as a mother, I am not willing to sacrifice either the environment or the economy.
Since the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, people are living healthier and longer lives, in part because of these very regulations. Congress, however, has placed our drinking water, our health, and our economy in their crosshairs with the passage of such bad pieces of legislation as the Dirty Water Bill (the Barrasso-Heller amendment, H.R. 2354), which the Senate is now considering.
At a time when Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys is grappling with toxic algal blooms rivaling those of the 70’s, Congress should not be rolling back protections for our waterways that provide drinking water, food, and jobs to millions of Ohioans. President Barack Obama should swiftly restore Clean Water Act protections to our streams, rivers and lakes. His administration has started the guidance and rule-making of what waterways are legally considered waters of the U.S. and afforded Clean Water Act protections. But big-money polluters and their friends in Congress are now trying to stand in the way.
Now is the time for concerned citizens to raise their voice. Don’t wait until you can no longer fish or swim in your favorite fishing hole. Contact your Senators today and tell them to vote no on the Dirty Water bill, before it’s too late.