Shocking images of guacamole-like toxic algae in Florida focused national attention on how something that sounds innocuous — nutrient pollution — can cause tremendous economic damage to tourism, boating and fishing industries, and severe danger to public health and wildlife. If history is any guide, the disturbing spectacle in Florida isn’t likely to lead to solutions.
Nutrient pollution, largely from industrial-scale agriculture, has long been an enormous water pollution problem in the nation, and multinational agribusiness interests are the primary impediment to solving this crisis.
Nationally, waterways in all 50 states are impacted by nutrient pollution — that is massive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged to water that cause toxic algal blooms, cause fish kills, render drinking water unsafe, cause illness and death, and keep people from fishing, swimming and boating. Agriculture is the greatest source of nutrient pollution, with industrial livestock operations alone dumping 1 billion tons of nitrogen and phosphorus-laden waste annually.
Two-thirds of our nation’s coastal waters are polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus, and toxic algal blooms have been documented in every U.S. coastal state, with an estimated annual loss of $82 million to the seafood, restaurant and tourism industries alone. While only a small portion of our nation’s inland waters are monitored, we know nutrients are causing poor water quality in 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, nearly 2.5 million acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds, and more than 800 square miles of bays and estuaries
Disturbing images visible from space have yet to inspire any solutions for Lake Erie’s massive algal blooms, which forced the shutdown of Toledo’s drinking water supply in 2014, or for the unprecedented, toxic algal bloom stretching from central California to the Alaska Peninsula, which caused fishery and shellfish closures in multiple states. And we still don’t have a solution to the decades old Gulf of Mexico dead zone that expanded last year to an area roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
More massive algal blooms are predicted this year and, in the last few weeks, blooms have been reported in at least 13 states, including one in Washington state where biotoxins with terrifying names like Paralytic Shellfish Poison, have already closed the razor clam fishery, resulting in an estimated $9.2 million in lost income.
Florida is an especially illustrative microcosm of our serious national economic, human health and environmental crisis with causes that are well understood and solutions that are aggressively opposed by powerful agribusiness interests, like Big Sugar and the Farm Bureau. The problem has not been solved because the state government and corporate agribusiness’ hired guns have worked hand-in-hand to aggressively oppose pollution reduction efforts under the Clean Water Act and state laws.
All of the same opposition tactics employed by agribusiness surrogates nationally are on full display in Florida — characterizing the federal government as overreaching, labeling reasonable solutions as attacks on agriculture, litigating against water standards and cleanup plans, gutting state environmental laws, defunding regulatory agencies, putting industry representatives inside state agencies, and shifting costs from industry to taxpayers and impacted businesses.
And it worked. Only a few months after signing the bill delaying solutions for Lake Okeechobee for at least another 20 years, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency because of the algal bloom and, without even the tiniest indication of chagrin, blamed the problem on the federal government.
In reality, Florida’s state government has undermined pollution control efforts for more than a decade. This past January, the governor signed legislation to delay the $8 billion cleanup plan for Lake Okeechobee, increased the use of ineffective industry self-regulatory “best management practices,” decreased state regulatory requirements and increased taxpayer spending on industry’s pollution problem.
News articles abound calling the Florida algae blooms a “mystery.” Call off the detectives — we have long known what is causing our national nutrient pollution crisis and agriculture is the largest source. Big Agriculture’s stranglehold on our democracy allows the unfettered discharge of pollution into our waterways.
It is imperative that state and federal leaders stop bowing to industry pressure and start enforcing our clean water laws. Clean water and agriculture can go hand-in-hand, but not if we continue to allow agribusiness to pollute our nation’s water with impunity.
Brion Blackwelder is an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University College of Law. Marc Yaggi is executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance.