Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

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