An Unprecedented Collaboration has Lake Erie Scum on the Run: Editorial

July 14, 2014

This article was originally published on cleveland.com on July 8, 2014 and can be found here.

The undulating green-scum season is about to set sail in the western basin of Lake Erie but it's not the summer activity of choice. It's a fetid, toxic, phosphorus-fueled summer bummer that poses a real threat to Ohio's annual $11.5 billion tourism industry.

Federal, state and local agencies, elected officials, environmentalists, scientists and farmers have launched an unprecedented, comprehensive counteroffensive to address algal blooms fed by phosphorus runoff from farms, yards and livestock facilities.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, has put the issue front and center on the national stage. Portman – together with Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat – successfully reauthorized the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2013 -- and for the first time included specific reference to the Great Lakes in the legislation.

The bill – passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate – was signed into law by President Barack Obama on July 1.

The Harmful Algal Blooms bill originally focused on the East, West and Gulf coasts, not the fourth coast, the Great Lakes coast, which is just as vulnerable to phosphorus runoff as those saltwater bodies. 

"We brought the bill back to life in a way that prioritizes Ohio's freshwater lakes," Portman said for this editorial.

The legislation authorizes $20.5 million a year for five years. Next stop: The appropriate appropriation subcommittees in both the House and the Senate.

Portman remains optimistic that the funding will be in place by the end of the year.

On Thursday, Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio State University's Ohio Sea Grant office, and scientists from both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Heidelberg University will make an initial forecast on how dire the Lake Erie blooms will be this summer.

Libby Dayton, an OSU soil scientist, is in the middle of a three-year project to revise the state's Phosphorus Risk Index. The goal is to prioritize best practices to prevent agricultural nutrient runoff. A consortium of soybean, corn and wheat farmers ponied up $1 million to help fund the study.

The 2014 Farm Bill also includes a new conservation program that requires farmers to comply with scientifically tested strategies to keep fertilizer on land if they want crop insurance.

The doom of the bloom looms, which makes these new, collaborative strategies to reduce phosphorus runoff so encouraging.