Last summer, a proliferation of toxic algae in the western basin of Lake Erie shut down drinking water supplies to nearly a half-million residents near Toledo, Ohio.
It provided the most critical sign to date of the stress on Great Lakes waters from phosphorous and other nutrients that are pouring in from farmland, overflows from wastewater treatment plants, urban runoff and other sources.
It also is the chief reason Rep. Brian Higgins on Tuesday renewed his call for legislation he introduced on Earth Day two years ago that would provide grants for Great Lakes area wastewater plants to upgrade their systems.
The latest version of the Great Lakes Nutrient Removal Assistance Act, which Higgins, D-Buffalo, intends to introduce to Congress on Wednesday, which is Earth Day, would provide the Environmental Protection Agency with $100 million a year, for five years, totaling $500 million. Higgins’ bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-Rochester, Sander Levin of Michigan and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Democrats who represent districts near the Great Lakes.
“The legislation would make it easier for municipalities to make infrastructure improvements to their wastewater treatment systems,” Higgins said at Gallagher Beach on the Outer Harbor.
Higgins and Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, were at Erie Basin Marina on Earth Day 2013 when the congresssman made his last announcement. The bill was introduced in Congress in February 2013 but was not enacted. It was referred to a House subcommittee the next day, but died there at the end of the last congressional session.
Toxic algal blooms have proliferated in Lake Erie partly from the phosphorus and other substances deposited by fertilizer in rain runoff from farms and overflows from wastewater treatment plants. The increased nutrients in the lake waters, combined with warming temperatures, percolate annually into a toxic summertime brew in the western half of the lake. Two years ago, toxic algae popped up as far east as Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa. – just 90 miles from Buffalo.
As the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, Lake Erie is particularly susceptible to algal blooms, Higgins said.
Those involved in environmental issues renewed praise for the legislation.
“Our 20th-century wastewater infrastructure never anticipated 20th-century pollution,” Jedlicka said. “We need investments, and this legislation would be a first step to address the municipal responsibility.”
The bill would provide the EPA with money that would be passed on to publicly owned wastewater treatment plants in the Great Lakes region, according to Higgins’ office. Upgraded plants would be equipped with “nutrient-removal technology.”
“The end result would have benefits for both reducing microcystin outbreaks and beach closings associated with algal blooms,” Jedlicka said. “It is important to note that this is only part of the solution.”
Jedlicka said attention also needs to be paid to reduce “the massive amounts of agricultural runoff into the lakes.”
The proposed legislation has a ways to go before it becomes reality.
Higgins next must circulate the bill and secure a bipartisan coalition to gain passage in the Republican-controlled Congress, lest it suffer the same fate as its 2013 counterpart.
Buffalo Niagara’s environmental community said, however, the political landscape should have changed dramatically after last summer’s events in Ohio and added further delays could be perilous for Great Lakes communities.
“The tragedy in Toledo demonstrated how vulnerable Lake Erie is to nutrient pollution. When it comes to protecting our drinking water, we can’t afford not to take action,” Brian Smith, associate executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement. “Upgrading our treatment plants with modern technology is a critical part of the solution.”
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