Senate reauthorizes algae act

By Tom Henry, The Blade
15 February 2014

Further congressional support for battling scum toxic enough to be classified as harmful algae in western Lake Erie and other U.S. bodies of water is now up to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday agreed to reauthorize the federal government’s Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act, which was first enacted in 1998 and reauthorized in 2004 and 2008.

The act establishes a level of algae-research authority for certain agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while also establishing reporting deadlines to Congress for results.

The reauthorization bill, introduced by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) and co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and several other senators, authorizes Congress to provide NOAA up to $20.5 million a year through 2018 for that type of research. NOAA’s harmful algal bloom and hypoxia research was funded at a high of $20.3 million in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, but that funding dropped to $18.7 million and $12.1 million in the last two fiscal years, respectively, according to an analysis of the bill.

NOAA estimates harmful algae costs the U.S. economy $82 million a year in losses incurred by the seafood and tourism industries.

“As families and businesses across Ohio continue to struggle during this time of economic uncertainty, we cannot afford to let this threat to our tourism, fishing industries, and health go unchecked,” Senator Portman said.

The Great Lakes fishery is valued at $7 billion a year.

Western Lake Erie, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay, and Wisconsin’s Fox River are among the most frequent victims of harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes region because of their runoff, depth, and other factors.

The issue made a big comeback in western Lake Erie starting in 1995, when a toxic form of algae called microcystis bloomed for the first time in about 20 years. It has continued to bloom almost annually.

Last summer, the toxins released by that algae were so potent they overwhelmed the Carroll Township water-treatment plant in Ottawa County, the first time in Ohio history a municipal water-treatment plant was forced off-line by algae toxins.

The toxins were prevalent and acute enough to cause Toledo officials to spend $1 million more than expected — $4 million instead of $3 million — to keep drinking water safe for some 500,000 customers in the metro Toledo area.