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Lawmakers spar over how to deal with algae blooms

Lawmakers spar over how to deal with algae blooms

This summer’s health threat scaring lawmakers on Capitol Hill is algae, which has caused a literal stink along the Gulf of Mexico coast, chased fishers away from the Great Lakes, and left Alaskan tribes wondering if their shellfish is poisoned with toxins.

Two years after the Zika virus sent Americans scrambling to change travel plans and rush for the bug spray, Mother Nature is once again forcing her way into Capitol Hill’s committee rooms.

The algal blooms are known as the red tide off the eastern tip of Florida and it shows up as blue-green blooms in the Great Lakes, forcing 160 days of beach closures in one Wisconsin county alone.

“Warmer temperatures, record rainfall have contributed to the worst algae blooms in recent memory,” said Patrick Neu, executive director of the National Professional Anglers Association, to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat, said it’s turned waterways in her state into “green pea soup” and prompted the beach closures.

“Climate change is making it worse, by creating more favorable conditions for algae blooms,” she said.

Dan Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said Congress needs to support scientists who are trying to answer key questions about the phenomenon, including whether the blooms in Florida are due to natural cycles or increased runoff of fertilizer and other nutrients.

In Alaska, he said, the big question is whether warming Arctic waters are at fault.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican and chairman of Commerce’s oceans and fisheries subcommittee, said Congress could start to tackle those questions by passing a bipartisan bill that already cleared the Senate and devotes $110 million through 2023 to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fight algae blooms and mitigate their oxygen-robbing effects in U.S. waterways.

Mr. Sullivan cast the problem in economic terms, noting a geoduck and clam fishery that takes in $5 million annually is facing devastating losses.

Florida, meanwhile, is worried about tourism. Its white-sand beaches should be lined with sunbathers and vacationing families in the run-up to Labor Day.

“Instead, they’re lined with dead and rotting sea life, casualties from the massive, toxic red-tide event that has now lasted 10 months,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat.

Mr. Nelson said he’s doing what he can to free up funding, but “states have to do their part,” he said, in a tacit rebuke to Gov. Rick Scott, who’s seeking to unseat Mr. Nelson in November’s election.

Democratic strongholds in Florida’s southeast are reeling from a coastal red-tide associated with fish kills, while Republican-dominated areas in the southwest are also dealing with blue-green algal blooms that cause havoc in fresh and brackish water.

“It’s an issue that’s hitting everybody, both sides of the aisle, so it’s grabbed everybody’s attention,” said Susan A. MacManus, politics professor emeritus at South Florida University.

For now, the candidates are sparring over who bears the most responsibility for addressing the problem — Washington or Tallahassee.

Mr. Scott, a two-term governor, says Mr. Nelson and the federal government failed to fund critical dike repairs near Lake Okeechobee, allowing discharges that fuel the blue-green blooms.

He’s committed $100 million to fixing the Herbert Hoover Dike alongside federal partners at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after the White House committed to supplying its own share of funds to help streams and rivers in southwest Florida.

“Nelson’s a talker, not a doer,” a Scott ad says. “With Bill Nelson we get more waiting, more talk and more algae.”

The debate could hinge on unaffiliated and minor-party voters who tend to be young, environmentally conscious and make up more than quarter of the Florida electorate, according to Ms. MacManus.

“That’s a really big chunk,” Ms. MacManus said, “and it’s growing all the time.”

Mr. Nelson appealed to this segment from the dais Tuesday, saying he’s pushing for final passage of the resources bill he co-sponsored with Mr. Sullivan and other bipartisan partners.

“It breaks my heart to see our beaches and rivers fouled like this,” he said. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

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Published at Wed, 29 Aug 2018 00:27:08 +0000