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Washington hearing on harmful algal blooms a major accomplishment

By Staff | Sep 23, 2009

Last week, I attended a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives about ways to prevent and control Harmful Algal blooms (HABs).

The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a legislative hearing to examine harmful algal blooms, hypoxia research and response needs. The goal is to create and implement a plan that would monitor, prevent, mitigate and control both marine and fresh water bloom and hypoxia events. The witnesses were asked to make specific comments on a draft of “The Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2009.”

This legislation directs the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, through an interagency task force, to establish and maintain a National Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Program. This program would develop and coordinate a comprehensive strategy to address harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.

In addition, this bill would provide for the development and implementation of comprehensive regional action plans to reduce harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird of Washington State said that “harmful algal blooms pose serious threats because of their production of toxins and reduction of oxygen in the water. These impacts include alteration of the ocean’s food web, human illnesses, and economic losses to communities and commercial fisheries.”

It was clear during the hearing that both witnesses and committee members were concerned about the increase in the frequency and duration of harmful algal blooms in both fresh and salt water. These increases can be attributed to changes in water quality, temperature, sunlight and increase in the amount of nutrients in the water. I was impressed at the depth of their knowledge and concern for this issue.

The witnesses included representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York and the University of Michigan.

Suzanne Schwartz, Acting Director of the Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, testified that according to one report there are 405 hypoxic zones around the world and that the second largest zone is in the Gulf of Mexico.

She pointed out that “there is strong evidence connecting hypoxia and algal blooms with nutrient pollution excessive nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, with the most significant sources of nutrients coming from agricultural runoff, largely from the upper Mississippi River Basin, as well as residential/commercial fertilizers, animal waste, sewage treatment plants, and from utilities and vehicles.”

Schwartz went on to point out that NOAA provides a conservative estimate that the cost of hypoxia and algal blooms to the U.S. Seafood and tourism industries is about $82 million annually.

Dr. Donald Anderson from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has been actively studying red tides and HABs for over 30 years. His testimony discussed the impact of HABs and the increase in outbreaks over the last 30 years. He also gave a perspective on the programmatic needs and a national HAB action plan. He stressed the need for a HAB forecasting system within NOAA to help communities better prepare a response to outbreaks.

I met with Dr. Anderson at the Wood Hole Institute and discussed our experience with a macro algal bloom just a few years ago. I was impressed to hear witnesses like Dr. Anderson talk about the need for forecasting, control and mitigation, which is where PURRE would like to see progress.

Representative Connie Mack participated in the hearing. Although Representative Mack does not sit on this subcommittee, he did ask special permission to participate. In his remarks he commented about the increase in red tide outbreaks and stressed the need for peer-reviewed research to avoid duplication of effort. He said it was important to understand the causes of HABs and specifically mentioned Sanibel Island as a community that could suffer serious harm from HAB outbreaks.

There is a companion bill in the Senate that has passed the committee and is waiting for floor action. The House should move to full committee next week and be ready for a full House vote soon. I believe there is a good chance this bill could make it to the President’s desk. With the other priorities in Washington at the moment and a fast approaching close to the fiscal year, I cannot say it will be soon, but we will be pushing for it.

This is an important part of the effort to deal with the effects of pollution in our waters. We at PURRE would like to thank our supporters for the opportunity to work on this legislation. While there has been great success in Florida with projects and programs to stop the pollution with efforts like fertilizer ordinances, increased water storage and the potential to move more water south with the U.S. Sugar purchase, there is not as much in the way of helping communities manage the impact of outbreaks when they occur. We have seen firsthand what happens when confronted with red tide and red drift algae in our community and are fortunate to have a city government that has taken positive steps to help. While this is great news, more work needs to be done.

PURRE will continue its work on passage of this legislation and the program funding. We will then to continue to work with NOAA on opportunities to benefit Southwest Florida. Please contact the PURRE office if you have questions about this legislation or would like more information. Our phone number is 239-472-2703; e-mail info@purre.org; and our Web site is www.purre.org.