ELPC’s 4th Annual Science Policy Confluence Conference

Partnering with the Center for Integrated Great Lakes Research at the University of Michigan, ELPC organized our 4th Science-Policy Confluence Conference on May 1-2, on the topic Great Lakes Harmful Algal Blooms: Science-based Policy Solutions.

The symposium brought together scientists and policymakers with differing expertise to learn from each other, discover how their work may interact and find potential collaborations. This year’s gathering deepened understanding of the extent, impact and future of harmful algal blooms (HABs), especially in the Great Lakes. Among the featured speakers were numerous expert scientists and policy makers including:

  • S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) who pointed to the importance of funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the consistent bipartisan support it has.
  • Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, whose city residents were not able to drink even boiled water for 2 days in the summer of 2014 called out the Ohio State Legislature for its lack of adequate action as “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ohio Farm Bureau.”
  • Consul General of Canada Douglas George

Symposium attendees shared ideas for potential science-based solutions and what it will take to implement them. Below are some of the most interesting findings presented and discussed.

  • HABs outbreaks aren’t unique to the Great Lakes, they occur worldwide. They are expected to worsen due to changing temperatures and increased precipitation from climate change, global trade and invasive species. The Great Lakes are among the places that the situation will get much worse.
  • In the last decade, the years with very low rainfall had the smallest outbreaks, indicating that heavy spring rains with nutrient-laden runoff a major contributing factor. However internal cycling of phosphorous and recycling of legacy pollution may also play a role, extending the timeframe it will take to see long-term results from reducing fertilizer and manure runoff.
  • Satellites now in orbit and drones in small areas allow us to see trends in algae outbreaks. Advances in interpreting images of land use, such as looking at barn size and type, vegetation and other factors are helping to shed light on sources of runoff. These images show that existing information on manure quantity at permitted animal farms are likely to be severely underestimated. Such mapping may soon help to identify low-hanging fruit, the first places to target grass strips and other controls.
  • Human health and cultural impacts from algal outbreak exposure are wide-ranging: from recreational exposure, drinking or eating fish caught from or even vegetables grown from algal laden waters. Touching, ingesting or even breathing the fumes from them may contribute to short and long-term health effects to both humans and dogs.
  • Significantly reducing phosphorous-laden runoff may lead to smaller but more toxic algal outbreaks, as nitrogen pollution takes on a more significant role in driving bloom composition.
  • Following on ELPC’s recent successful lawsuit leading to Ohio declaring the open waters of western Lake Erie impaired, scientists showed that it would take at least 6 years to have that designation removed.
  • Scientific research is still needed to decide on the best management approaches in different locations; there is not yet unity as to the extent to which both phosphorous and nitrogen need to be controlled and thus what the most effective nutrient management strategies are.
  • Active adaptive management is viewed as the best approach, but messaging the need for flexibility and potentially changing requirements is critical for public and decision makers to understand. The question of how to effectively implement adaptive management is a key issue that will need to be resolved to successfully move beyond current policies.
  • Verna Harrison, former Assistant Secretary of Maryland Dept of Natural Resources shared lessons learned from the Chesapeake Bay, where progress on reducing nutrient-laden runoff is much further along, importantly through the use of TMDLs.

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