One thing upon which Democrats and Republicans agree is the need to do more to protect the Great Lakes from toxic algal blooms. In that spirit, Congress sent to President Obama last week a measure reauthorizing the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman engineered a most helpful addition to the law, a section devoted to the Great Lakes and a framework for driving progress.
Part of the challenge has been turning good intentions into concrete advances. In February, the International Joint Commission sounded an alarm, urging Michigan and Ohio to declare the western Lake Erie basin impaired from nutrient pollution. The panel, made up of three commissioners from this country and three from Canada, offered a promising set of recommendations. Yet, in a practical sense, that is all they were, proposals for others to carry out, if they wish.
Of late, Ohio lawmakers have moved forward, enacting legislation that requires most farmers to take training and receive certification from the state before they use commercial fertilizers on their fields. The thinking is that such education will lead to less use of phosphorus-based fertilizer, diminishing the runoff into rivers and streams that fuels algal blooms in Lake Erie.
Yet the legislation lacks sufficient bite. For instance, it does not take effect until 2017. It does not include inspections to ensure that farmers are complying with the intent of the bill.
This is where the work of Rob Portman offers something better. The Ohio Republican not only has elevated the profile of the Great Lakes. The reauthorization brings improvements in the way offices and agencies address the problem. It contains the necessary elements of coherence and accountability. Research and actions are linked more strongly to specific regional needs, requiring reports and comprehensive monitoring, plus ultimately, a mechanism for funding.
Perhaps passage will inspire a reluctant Gov. John Kasich and team to join Michigan and Indiana in a related effort, made available through the new federal farm bill. The past few summers, toxic algal blooms have put at increasing risk the ecosystem of Lake Erie, its fishing, recreation and tourism business. The Great Lakes basin needs a vehicle for concerted and effective action.