The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As dangerous algal blooms grow, agencies need to pick up the pace

Green algae blooms are seen on Lake Okeechobee in Port Mayaca, Fla. on July 10, 2018. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Now that summer’s in full swing, it’s time to hit the water. But wait, why is the beach green?

Harmful algal blooms — excessive vegetation growth in bodies of water, often caused by runoff polluted by fertilizer — are the problem. These blooms deplete waters of oxygen, causing mass die-offs of plant and animal life. Some harmful algal blooms release toxins deadly enough to kill fish, birds and mammals, even humans in rare circumstances. Others discolor or stink up water, poisoning drinking sources and shutting down recreational fishing, boating and beaches. Congress has already directed the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to address this issue. But the two-decade-old interagency working group, bogged down by bureaucratic back-and-forth, needs to move faster.

At the request of Congress, the Government Accountability Office released a report in June on the effectiveness of the interagency working group. To their credit, the two agencies have done good work in researching harmful algal blooms, monitoring harmful marine events and assisting local, state and tribal actors. The interagency working group itself has been punctual in submitting required reports to Congress, creating action strategies and coordinating harmful algal bloom work between agencies. But, as detailed in the GAO’s report, the interagency working group has yet to implement a national harmful algal blooms program, one of its main congressional directives. It also lacks performance measures to assess just how effective their agencies’ efforts are in managing harmful algal bloom events.

When asked what exactly a “national program” entails, J. Alfredo Gomez, the director of the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, told The Post a program “would identify goals, strategies, and plans to achieve them and the available resources … and need for additional resources to achieve them. It would also report on progress toward goals.” Why — after two decades — is so much more planning needed before the actual implementation of the national program starts?

Not only devastating to the environment and to public health, harmful algal blooms also damage many industries and local economies. A 2006 study showed that the blooms cause an estimated $82 million in losses annually in the United States — a figure that is likely to have increased, as blooms are becoming more frequent and more toxic because of climate change and nutrient pollution. The problem has been documented in all 50 states, in marine environments as well as in freshwater sources such as the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to the GAO, NOAA and the EPA have their tasks clearly laid out in front of them. They should heed the GAO’s advice — and do so quickly, resisting the urge to slowly come up with the perfect plan before taking action.

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