Archive for October, 2011

Missed opportunities

October 7, 2011

I testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee earlier this week, and I’m not happy with myself.  I missed an opportunity. Unfortunately, so did they, and their missed opportunity has much greater consequences than mine.

I was invited to testify about nutrient problems and programs to address those problems by the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee chaired by Senator Cardin of Maryland. My testimony (pdf) was straightforward: I summarized NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes,  that we released earlier that day and then I passed on the observations of Lake Erie Charter Boat Association President and Captain Rick Unger.

The level of the ecosystem breakdowns the Great Lakes are experiencing really shocked the members of the subcommittee. I didn’t have time to get into details on lack of nutrients in the open waters of Lake Huron and the crash of fish populations and health there that has resulted. But I was able to provide the following snapshot:

  • This summer Lake Erie experienced the worst toxic algal bloom in its recorded history — even worse than the 1960s, when Lake Erie was declared dead. The toxic algae, mycrosystis, has been measured at levels 1,000 times higher than WHO guidelines for drinking water; this algae can cause sickness or even death in humans and animals.
  • Toxic and green algal blooms are common this summer in nearshore areas throughout the Great Lakes, including Sagainaw Bay and Green Bay.
  • We are seeing extensive blooms of the algae Cladophora along Lake Michigan’s shores, which have interacted with invasive species to produce outbreaks of botulism poisoning that have killed fish and birds.
  • Lake Erie has an anoxic zone where oxygen levels are too low for fish to live that seasonally extends thousands of square miles along the bottom of the lake.

And then I related Captain Unger’s observations. He says that the algae goes for miles along the beaches and extends miles into the open lake. In some places, the algae is two feet thick. It looks like green mud. According to Captain Unger:

“The algae is toxic. There are posted warnings: Don’t drink the water. Don’t touch it. Don’t swim in it. People are getting sick out on the water. Captains have respiratory problems.”

In terms of Captain Unger’s business, bookings are down; people don’t want to go onto the water. Rebookings are nonexistent; once they’ve been out in the algae they don’t want to go back.

When the algae moves in, the fish move out,” reports Captain Unger.
Because he has to take his boat out much farther to find fish, he says, “The costs of doing business are skyrocketing.”

Last year there were 800 charter boat captains in Lake Erie. This year, there are 700 – they lost 100 in a year. And by next year there will be a lot fewer. Captain Unger says there is no doubt that trend is because of the algae blooms.

“There’s miles and miles where the fish can’t live,” he says. “It’s turning back into the 1960s, when it was called a dead lake.”

The Senators were surprised and concerned. So far so good. So what went wrong?

Anybody who watched the hearing would see it right away (view the archived webcast). While Senator Cardin really wanted to engage on how to solve these problems – you can tell he’s completely committed to restoring the Chesapeake Bay and is passionate about addressing its terrible damage – most of his colleagues on the subcommittee wanted to play “gotcha” with the EPA instead.

After EPA’s Nancy Stoner testified about EPA’s efforts nationally and in Florida to set water quality standards that would help reduce nutrient pollution, most of the hearing was devoted to accusing EPA of trying to take over the Florida nutrient management program, of imposing its will on the states, of wrecking the economy, of driving enterprises out of business….. I was surprised they didn’t accuse EPA of ruining the housing market. Maybe that’s next week.

If this sounds familiar, it is: it’s the partisan political strategy being used in Washington to attack the Obama Administration. The problem is that it completely ignores the multiple nutrient-related crises we’re seeing in the Great Lakes and across the country: exploding numbers of algal blooms and dead zones; people getting sick and wildlife and fish dying; tourist and fishing businesses going under.

Our current laws and programs are losing ground. The largest source of nutrient pollution, non-point runoff, primarily from agriculture, is unregulated (and appears to be unregulatable). Voluntary programs hold promise but don’t have the focus, penetration, reach or funding to stem the tide of degradation, much less make improvements at scale.

So what does the Senate subcommittee do? Address the real problem? No. It plays political “gotcha” while the nation suffers.

So what was my missed opportunity? I had the chance to say all that in my five minutes of testimony, but I didn’t; I stuck to my script. And the more I think about it, the angrier I get.

I’d love to have those five minutes back but that’s not going to happen. So I’ll write it down here and share it as widely as I can. Feel free to join me.

Let’s let the subcommittee – and all of our political leaders – know that we expect them to address the nation’s real crises, not the ones that they manufacture.