Now that summer is in full swing, it’s time to take the plunge. But wait, why is the beach green?
Reviews | EPA and NOAA need to work faster on algal blooms
Harmful algal blooms – excessive growth of vegetation in water bodies, often caused by runoff polluted by fertilizers – are the problem. These blooms deplete the waters of oxygen, causing massive mortality of plant and animal life. Some harmful algal blooms release toxins lethal enough to kill fish, birds and mammals, even humans in rare circumstances. Others discolor or stink of water, poison drinking water sources and closure of recreation 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 inter-agency task force, bogged down in bureaucratic back and forth, needs to move faster.
At the request of Congress, the Government Accountability Office issued a report in June on the effectiveness of the inter-agency working group. To their credit, both agencies have done good work in researching harmful algal blooms, monitoring harmful marine events, and assisting local, state, and tribal actors. The inter-agency working group itself was punctual in submission required reporting to Congress, creating strategies for action, and coordinating harmful algal bloom work among agencies. But, as detailed in the GAO report, the interagency task force has yet to implement a national harmful algal bloom program, one of its key congressional directives. It also lacks performance measures to gauge how effective their agencies’ efforts are in managing harmful algal bloom events.
When asked what exactly a “national program” entails, J. Alfredo Gomez, director of GAO’s natural resources and environment team, told The Post that a program would “identify the objectives, the strategies and plans to achieve them as well as the resources available… and the need for additional resources to achieve them. It would also report on progress towards the goals. Why – after two decades – is so much more planning needed before the actual implementation of the national program begins?
Not only devastating to the environment and public health, harmful algal blooms also harm many local industries and economies. A 2006 study showed that flowers cause about $82 million in losses per year in the United States – a figure that has probably increased, as the efflorescences are become more frequent and more toxic due to 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 Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to the GAO, NOAA and EPA have their tasks clearly defined before them. They should heed the GAO’s advice — and do it quickly, resisting the urge to slowly find the perfect plan before taking action.