Ag Policy Blog

Algae Blooms and Other Unforeseeable Problems

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Last week senators from Indiana, Ohio and Michigan wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calling on USDA to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with algae blooms in Lake Erie.

The senators want additional Environmental Quality Incentive Program dollars to help pay more farmers to grow cover crops. They considered this critical after tens of thousands of acres in the Lake Erie watershed went unplanted because of the constant rains this spring. Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, all members of the Senate Ag Committee, said partnerships are needed to deal with this urgent issue of algae blooms.

"No group understands the importance of water and soil more than our nation's farmers and producers. While there is no silver bullet that will resolve this crisis, we know that working together and sharing knowledge will help develop broad strategies capable of making a large impact on the quality of our water."…

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a harmful algae bloom is growing in the middle of the lake with increasing levels of visible severe surface scum. NOAA even has a bulletin to keep track of the algae bloom.…

A year ago, roughly 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, had no drinking water because the algae blooms were basically lurking right over the city's intake value for its drinking-water plant. That caught peoples' attention.

Lake Erie is certainly not alone as similar algae blooms are popping up in New York, Minnesota and Iowa, just to name a few places with recent articles. Then there is the growing algal bloom off the West Coast that now stretches from California to Alaska.

If only someone had foreshadowed these problems so policymakers could come up with a little preventive medicine.

Now I'm going to wade into toxic waters again as well. You know who issued warnings about expanded algae blooms? EPA did -- in 1989. In a report to Congress, "The Potential Effects of Global Climate Change on the United States," EPA released a three-year study looking at impacts of climate change 30 to 50 years out.

At the time, the 1989 EPA report was considered the most comprehensive study the federal government had done on climate change and it analyzed several scientific studies. The authors stated they hoped that officials would be encouraged to examine the long-term implications of climate change. "Since this is the first study of its type, we expect that a great deal more research, analysis, and planning will be needed in the future. We do not pretend to have all of the answers."

The report examined a lot of issues we're still debating today. Twenty six years later, though, that study offered a pretty good crystal ball. EPA highlighted that a northern crop shift was going to increase soybean yields in the Great Lakes region. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan were expected to see higher yields, which also has happened. However, EPA also warned that as crop acreage expanded northward, it would lead to increased runoff and erosion problems. More crop production in the glacial till region would lead to greater applications of chemical fertilizers to increase production. This would cause more problems with nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.

Specifically, in the Great Lakes region, EPA warned of changes in temperature and precipitation could cause "greater stratification in lakes and increased growth in algae, which in turn could cause lower dissolved oxygen levels in shallow areas." Algae blooms were going to be a growing problem, EPA explained.

That same 1989 study also highlighted that California was going to have to change the way it manages its water supplies. Runoff from the mountains would come earlier because there would be less snowpack. The changes in runoff "could have a major impact on water resources in the Central Valley," EPA wrote. The impacts of climate change on California agriculture were considered uncertain, given the broad range of crops and diversity in the state. But the effects of temperature and precipitation alone were expected to reduce crop yields anywhere from 3% to 40%. Water deliveries under the state's two major irrigation canals would decline, even as demand for water increased. EPA wrote, "Reduced snowpack and earlier runoff could occur throughout the West, exacerbating water management problems in a region that is currently short of water."

Regarding agriculture overall, EPA cited back then that there could be long-term yield declines with some regions more prone to droughts. Irrigation would increase, which could lead to depleting the Ogallala Aquifer. Warmer temperatures would make livestock and crops more prone to pests and diseases that also would migrate north. Agriculture could face increasing problems with surface water and groundwater pollution. Under extreme scenarios in the future there could be declines in exports because of production losses.

EPA did acknowledge that the agency's scientists did not have enough information to know how the new emerging science of biotechnology would help farmers adapt to climate change.

The 1989 EPA study also pointed out that the National Academy of Sciences warned in 1979 that increased greenhouse-gas concentrates will eventually change the global climate and raise temperatures 2 F to 8 F in the decades after 2030.

Just something to keep in mind the next time someone says nobody could have predicted this.

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Curt Zingula
8/10/2015 | 7:23 AM CDT
Bonnie is right about too much finger pointing. Still, I'll risk condemnation by pointing out something that not even the all-knowing EPA doesn't address and that is the much higher fertilizer needs of today's crops. Because our fore-fathers mined the soil for decades we now have to add additional P to feed a higher yielding crop and bring soils back to optimal levels. With corn yields stuck at 30 bu./acre eighty years ago and today's corn yields at six times greater, the N applications we need to use are also six times greater. The higher input costs for modern crops means that farmers are less likely to let their crops go hungry. When the EPA stops looking into crystal balls (ones that benefit the growth of their agency) and deals with reality, we may actually make progress on nutrient pollution.
Bonnie Dukowitz
8/10/2015 | 7:03 AM CDT
Too many, Raymond, are so busy pointing the finger at others, they do not have time to look backward and see their own discharge.
Raymond Simpkins
8/9/2015 | 7:31 PM CDT
What about the millions of gallons of raw sewage Toledo and all the other cities on Lake Erie dump every time it rains?
Jay Mcginnis
8/8/2015 | 6:07 AM CDT
Ummmm, maybe we better find some energy sources that don't increase the carbon levels in the atmosphere but that might take some hope and change that a certain political party is opposed to!