Slider image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon for NASA Earth Observatory altered by the Progressive. Article Image by NOAA.
The Republicans appear to have one less thing to worry about as they kick off this week’s potentially rowdy National Convention in Cleveland. Algae experts are forecasting that much of the thick blanket of smelly algae—which in the past two summers has toxified as much as 60 percent of Lake Erie, killed fish, made beaches unswimmable, and cost 400,000 Ohioans access to drinking water—is pulling a no-show.
It isn’t that Ohio has actually done anything new to significantly reduce known drivers of algae blooms—fertilizer runoff from agriculture as well as added nitrogen, thermal discharging and increased CO2 emissions from power plants. This summer, the state just got lucky with a lower-than-average rainfall, meaning that less fertilizer was swept from fields into the lake via smaller streams and rivers.
And that really is a shame.
If anyone should have to hang out with stinking lakeshores and pea-soup green water it’s the Republicans.
Algae blooms, which plague fresh and ocean waters across the country, are costly for local communities. Last August, a toxic algae outbreak snaked more than 600 miles down the Ohio River through four states and multiple municipal water treatment facilities. Cincinnati spent $7,700 more per day in much of September to add chemicals to tap water. In recent years, Ohio lake algae blooms have cost local economies millions in lost local tourism revenue. In Minnesota, a one-meter difference in water clarity is associated with property value changes of up to $85,000.
Expressing only superficial concerns, Republicans have done nothing but obstruct policies aimed to combat the blooming algae.
Processing algal bloom samples from western Lake Erie. Credit: NOAA
Last spring, the Obama administration created rules to clarify the Clean Water Act, giving the Environmental Protection Agency the jurisdiction to protect headwaters, ponds, small streams, wetlands, and other small bodies of water. This is a no-brainer for anyone with a basic understanding of ecology. Water flows from small streams and lakes into big ones. So if you can protect small water bodies you are doing a lot to help ensure better water quality in the big ones.
But almost the entire Senate Republican caucus sponsored legislation last fall to overturn Obama’s rules. The U.S. Supreme Court piled on this spring, essentially concluding that landowners and companies can challenge the EPA and other federal agencies in court trying to enforce water pollution laws.
Obama is now threatening to veto a Republican-sponsored spending bill for environmental agencies that includes cuts in funding to environmental agencies, and Republican-sponsored policy riders designed to block administration rules on water, power plant emissions, and coal mining.
At the regional level—where you might hope to see state and local politicians more responsive to local people suffering from the myriad costs of algae blooms—things don’t smell any better. Even after years of summer nastiness of Lake Erie’s blooms, Ohio Republicans dragged their feet on passing any legislation that would effectively respond to the problem by giving environmental agencies the power to levy fines and the money to support better land management practices by farmers.
One might turn a hopeful gaze on Wisconsin, once touted as an environmental leader in the region. Under its previous governor, two-term Democrat Jim Doyle, the state stood out for developing and starting to implement “numeric criteria” for allowable nutrient levels in an effort to reach federal water quality standards set by the EPA under the Clean Water Act. Lowering levels of phosphorous and nitrogen is key to inhibiting algae blooms.
Under Republican Governor Scott Walker, however, Wisconsin has dropped the ball. For example, the state’s original schedule of compliance required large-scale farms and other sources of nutrients into waterways to begin to reach the numeric standards within seven to nine years. Walker’s administration is currently seeking a variance providing some polluters with up to twenty years to comply.
And under pressure from the state’s Republican lawmakers, the state’s Department of Natural Resources is failing to enforce it’s own rules for large farms, municipalities, factories and other sources of water pollution.
Writing in the Wisconsin State Journal, Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club, laid it out:
In the last ten years, the DNR has issued a notice of violation only thirty-three times out of the 558 times it should have — 94 percent of the time there was no action. Additionally, despite the DNR rule to inspect a factory farm twice every five years, this inspection never exceeded 48 percent since 2005.
Jimmy Parra, attorney for the Midwest Environmental Advocates, who is tracking the evolution of legislation associated with water quality puts Wisconsin’s trajectory this way:
“We are way ahead of other states—and that’s a sad state of affairs because we aren’t that far along.”
On July 12, in preparation for the impending Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor went on a Lake Erie fishing trip, allowing her to report with great authority: “The water looked great. The fish looked great.”
As for the algae? Outta sight, outta mind.
But not for long. The green slime monster coming soon to water near you. And now you’ll know who to thank.
Mrill Ingram is online media editor for The Progressive.