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Veteran algal bloom scientist calls on EPA to shift priorities from focus on practices to outcomes

Veteran algal bloom scientist calls on EPA to shift priorities from focus on practices to outcomes
August 17, 2022 Gary Wilson

Correction: A previous version of this story listed bureaucracies that weren’t involved in the release of the 2022 State of the Great Lakes report.

It’s peak algal bloom season and as always, Lake Erie is in the spotlight.

It was 2014 when a bloom caused the City of Toledo and nearby residents to go without water for three days after toxins were found in the drinking water. Bottled water flew off the shelves and the national media ran with the story.

For Don Scavia, it was another chapter in the algal bloom saga he had been working on since the late 1990s.

Scavia is now professor emeritus of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan. Prior to joining the Michigan faculty, Scavia held senior positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He recently co-authored a column in The Conversation with University of Maryland Professor of Marine Science, Donald Boesch, where they made the case for a national policy to address algal blooms.

Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson interviewed Scavia about the need for a national policy on nutrient runoff. Scavia expressed his concerns about why voluntary measures to control the nutrient runoff from farms that fuels the blooms haven’t worked and are unlikely to, and called on the EPA to shift its focus from practices to outcomes.

The interview was conducted via email and edited for clarity and length.

Photo courtesy of Don Scavia

Great Lakes Now: You say that after years of study, the science is clear on what needs to be done to prevent nutrient runoff, and that the states including Michigan and Ohio have entered into formal agreements to clean up Lake Erie, but those efforts have failed because “controls on nutrient pollution are weak and ineffective.” Can you expand on that?

Don Scavia: It is important that the governments have entered into formal agreements through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program under the Clean Water Act.  This is because their activities are required to be tracked and the potential results will be monitored over time.

However, most nutrient loads come from agriculture and efforts to reduce them are still mostly incentive-based and voluntary. Those approaches have proven to be insufficient both in the Great Lakes region and in other large-scale systems like the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi Basin.

While nutrient reduction practices may be effective at small scales, the fact that the nutrient loads to these systems have not changed for decades, after investing billions of dollars, suggests the practices are either the wrong ones, or applied in the wrong places, or not implemented at sufficient scales to move the needle.

GLN: In the column you co-wrote for The Conversation in July, and Great Lakes Now re-published, you asked if Lake Erie’s alga blossom will lead to a human health crisis, or just devastate the coastal economy. People generally understand the health risks associated with toxic algae blooms best evidenced by the Toledo water crisis in 2014. Can you elaborate on the economic impacts?

DS: An obvious economic impact are the new costs for monitoring drinking water intakes and treating the water when toxins are present; one study indicates the costs are roughly $3 million per year.

But, the economic impacts go well beyond that. Even when blooms are not toxic, their unsightly scum impacts property values, tourism, and recreation. For example, one study commissioned by the International Joint Commission puts the economic impact of the 2011 and 2014 blooms at $71 million and $65 million, and indicates that if those blooms were to recur annually the losses would be $1.5 and $1.3 billion over 30 years. Another study, published in the peer reviewed literature, puts the potential cost of uncontrolled Lake Erie algal blooms  in Canada alone at $5.3 billion over 30 years.

GLN: In June, the federal Government Accounting Office on the lack of progress on controlling nutrient runoff, called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA to establish a “national goal” to focus the federal government’s attention. How would that make a difference?

DS: The GAO report commends efforts done under the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 (HABRCA) to monitor and, in some cases, forecast harmful algal blooms and dead zones. They encourage additional efforts like those, especially in freshwater systems.

The report also recommends establishing a national goal focused on prevention. That could be impactful because it would bring more focus on the causes of harmful algal blooms and dead zones – nutrient pollution. However, because of HABRCA’s structure, the report directs the Administrators of NOAA and EPA to establish the program. NOAA has no authority to manage nutrient loads and agriculture is exempt from the Clean Water Act. So, most of the required actions would be under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

GLN: Last November, Great Lakes Now asked EPA Great Lakes Region Administrator Debra Shore if it was time to “step up regulatory action to protect Lake Erie.” She responded that she would “like to see more study.” In July, Shore told Great Lakes Now that EPA is increasing its investment to Lake Erie nutrient reduction and harmful algae bloom research from $10 million to over $20 million per year from 2022-2024.  Is this meaningful or more of what hasn’t been effective?

DS: It’s nice to see the EPA supporting more research, but I wonder how that will stack up against the hundredss of millions of dollars spent over the years in agricultural conservation research?

Pumping more money into refining existing efforts reminds me of Einstein’s quote; “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

I would be more excited if it would be spent to explore fundamentally new approaches that move away from focusing on practices to focusing outcomes, as suggested by a growing number of policy analysts and economists, and to develop better regulatory frameworks.

GLN: In July, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group released a report that said there are 2,500 animal feeding operations at the edge of the Western Lake Erie Basin that, because of their individual small size, are not monitored by any state or federal agency. How do we get a handle on their contribution to Lake Erie’s problems?

DS: This is potentially a substantial problem because studies have shown that manure is a significant portion of total phosphorus inputs to Lake Erie. The EWG report found that 90% of the animal operations, representing 63% of the produced manure phosphorus, are not regulated because they are below the size requiring permits.

Because manure is very expensive to transport, much of it is applied within 5 miles of the operations, likely resulting in over-fertilized hot spots. The EWG recommended that operations of all sizes should prevent nutrient runoff through better management of manure waste. There should also be sufficient space for grazing animals, prevention of livestock getting into streams and application of manure at recommended rates and timing. Farming in hot spots should implement conservation practices on crop fields that are most likely to experience phosphorus runoff.

However, because there is currently no way to enforce these practices for operations below the size requiring permitting, a more direct approach would be to reduce the size of operations requiring the permits.

GLN: The U.S. and Canada’s respective environment agencies recently released its 2022 State of the Great Lakes report. Lake Erie was the only lake declared in “poor” condition as it was in previous reports in 2017 and 2019. Is the nutrient runoff that fuels algae blooms the primary contributor to Lake Erie’s continued “poor” rating?

DS: Yes, it is pretty clear from the metrics used in that report, that nutrient pollution and associated watershed stresses are key drivers of the poor Lake Erie conditions.  What is especially worrisome is that the condition trends are either deteriorating or unchanging despite the revised goals set in the 2016 update of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

GLN: In your column in The Conversation, you also talked about the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico and their issues with farm pollution. How does the Great Lakes region stack up to these iconic waters in dealing with algae blooms?

DS: The Great Lakes region was the first with the successful efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to reduce nutrient loads primarily through upgrading water treatment plants and removing phosphorus from detergents.

The Chesapeake Bay region and many parts of the Mississippi basin followed with similar success in reducing those point sources under the Clean Water Act. The Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie, responded to those point source reductions with substantial reductions in algae blooms and dead zones.

But since the mid-1990s, those issues have resurfaced. Now, all three systems are dominated by nonpoint agricultural sources. A 2016 study I led shows that agriculture contributes 85% of Lake Erie’s Maumee River phosphorus load.

The Gulf of Mexico is no closer to meeting a goal set 20 years ago in a Federal-State Action Plan. The Chesapeake Bay appears to be making very slow progress under its plan, but is still missing target deadlines. Lake Erie is about to implement its TMDL plan and only time will tell if it will make a difference.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

To reduce harmful algal blooms and dead zones, the US needs a national strategy for regulating farm pollution

Harmful algal blooms cause problems in Lake Erie; drinking water customers pay the price


Featured image: Toxic algae blooms around the Great Lakes in the summer. (Great Lakes Now Episode 1013)

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