Tribune Editorial: Do not feed the algae

Rules against runoff are too little carrot and no stick at all.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune U.S. Geological Survey scientists conduct an experimental study on Utah lake on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, to gain a better understanding of nutrient levels, which could help in understanding how to best manage algal bloom outbreaks. The pilot project is using new technology to measure the distribution, occurrence, and concentration of nutrients in in both Utah Lake and Gilbert Bay of the Great Salt Lake.

A natural reaction to reading all those article about toxic algae blooms in Utah Lake and other bodies of water across the nation is to ask, in an infuriated tone of voice, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?”

Come to find out we are. It just isn’t working very well.

A recent Associated Press investigation discovered that the billions of dollars the federal government has spent on the problem over the past eight years or so appear to have been poorly focused and relied too much on voluntary cooperation from those responsible for the chemical runoff that leads to the explosion of algae.

We’ve been waiving a small carrot in front of the problem, and we have no stick.

Part of the problem is the way we describe things. The algae blooms in Utah Lake, Lake Erie and other major lakes are caused in large measure by an excess of “nutrients” that flow from lawns, industrial sources and, mostly, farms.

It can be hard to grasp that nutrients can be a bad thing. But when they are nitrogen, phosphorus and animal and human waste, the nutritional value is realized by microscopic algae and bacteria, which can explode in number, upsetting the natural balance and creating toxic plumes in Utah Lake, Idaho’s Snake River, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, among others.

The problem takes on a somewhat different, if equally horrible, chemical composition in the Gulf of Mexico, where each year a giant Dead Zone is formed by the explosion of different kinds of algae. Unlike what is increasingly found in Utah Lake, this variety of algae isn’t toxic on its own. But when its very short life-cycle ends, and dead bacteria sink in great numbers, the resulting decay literally sucks the oxygen out of thousands of square miles of Gulf water.

Meanwhile, a mixture of nostalgia, hunger and political pressure means that dangerous chemical runoff that comes from agricultural operations are less likely to be attacked by regulation than is the kind of effluent that comes from factories. We think we are giving Uncle Henry and Auntie Em a pass, when really we are suffering from the chemical pollution that runs off from large-scale agribusiness.

As the AP discovered, federal programs and payments that are meant to encourage and fund farming practices that would greatly reduce the nutrient runoff don’t reach enough farming operations and, even when they do, the money gets used for other, sometimes praiseworthy, things.

The fact that agricultural operations are spread over wide areas, while factory waste pipes are easier to find and plug, makes the problem more difficult to solve, but not less urgent.

More careful uses of fertilizers, different styles of crop rotation and other tricks farmers could use — and we could pay for — are available. They need to be less of a suggestion and more of a rule.

The farmers need clean water, too.