WASHINGTON, Dec. 3, 2014-- The mayor of Toledo, Ohio, said toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie that caused a water crisis in his city this summer will occur again if the federal government does not pay more attention to regional water quality.

“If we forget what happened in Toledo, it is doomed to be repeated,” the official, Michael Collins, told a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on water quality. “Toxic algal blooms are not new, we have as a nation failed in studying the reasons why they continue and in taking steps to reduce or eliminate their occurrence.”

Scientists believe that runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus--found in agricultural fertilizer--intensified the seasonal algae bloom in Lake Erie. The algae created dangerous levels of the toxin microcystin and the city issued a “do not consume” order to more than 400,000 residents over a weekend in early August. 

Collins said not all the causes of algal blooms have been identified. 

“Phosphorus in Lake Erie has been reduced dramatically since the 1960s, however problems still remain,” he said. “Is it the new formulation of fertilizers? Open Lake dredging? Invasive species interfering with the ecology of the Lake? We do not know for certain,” he said. 

Collins criticized what he said was the lack of federal support for his region during the crisis. He called for the government to provide additional funding for research into the causes of the pollution, as well as ways to improve water quality.

Collins also said EPA should set a federal water quality standard for toxic algal blooms, and that the government should target funding for infrastructure in watersheds that most affect the water quality of Lake Erie.

This has long been an issue for those of us who live near the Great Lakes,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the Agriculture Committee chairwoman. She called the algal bloom in in the lake near Toledo a “stark wake-up call,” noting that for 72 hours, people in the area couldn’t drink their water, use water to cook, wash their hands, brush their teeth, or take a shower because the water was contaminated with toxins. 

She also emphasized that, “No group understands the importance of water and soil more than our nation’s farmers and ranchers.” The hearing highlighted public-private partnerships meant to help landowners improve water quality, including the 2014 Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller said the first sign-up period for RCPP in July received 600 pre-proposal submissions, representing all 50 states. RCPP authorizes $1.2 billion over the next five years to promote conservation partnerships.

During the hearing, Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown urged approval of $20 million in funds to reduce runoff in the Western Lake Erie Basin, which involves Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, with most of the funding going to Ohio.

During the hearing, Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown urged approval of $20 million in funds to reduce runoff in the Western Lake Erie Basin. The Tri-State Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorus Reduction Initiative application, involving Ohio Michigan and Indiana, is under consideration for a $20 million federal award, most of which would go to Ohio.

Also during the hearing, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., questioned witnesses about the potential for nutrient trading, or market-based programs that involve the exchange of pollution allocations between sources.

Marty Matlock, executive director of the Office for Sustainability at the University of Arkansas, said nutrient trading provides a great opportunity to improve water quality, and “it could reduce overall loads of nitrogen and phosphorous.”

However, landowners are uncertain about potential EPA regulations that come with nutrient trading frameworks. “Landowners are hesitant...they don’t know the regulatory risks,” Matlock said, adding that EPA has “no historic relationship” with the agricultural community.

Several senators, including Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., brought up EPA’s proposed “Waters of the U.S.” rule. Roberts said the issue is the top concern among Kansas farmers, while Donnelly said the rule could create a disincentive to employ conservation practices on a farm. “The agricultural community works every day to make waters cleaner…and all they get is more hassle every day [from federal regulators],” he said.


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