Kaptur’s bill in Ohio doesn't get to the root causes of what plagues our lakes
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With the midterms just around the corner, Congress has all but shuttered as the country prepares to vote and potentially redraw the political landscape of the Senate and the House.

There is still, however, some movement in D.C., with certain representatives introducing last-minute bills that tend to reflect their own interests. Rep. Marcy KapturMarcia (Marcy) Carolyn KapturAppropriators face crucial weekend to reach deal Congress races to beat deadline on shutdown Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases MORE (D-Ohio), for example, has just filed legislation to try to get the Environmental Protection Agency to set a water standard for microcystin.


In a nutshell, microcystin is produced by the same bacteria that comprise those green, smelly algal blooms that still plague so many of our water bodies — from Lake Winnipeg up in Canada to Lake Erie that borders Kaptur’s home state of Ohio — especially during summer. It is harmful to humans when consumed in drinking water, and can pose a threat to irrigation water supplies as well as the fauna that reside in affected bodies of water.

In short, microcystin is a toxin and we do not want it in our drinking water.

The effects of an outbreak can be vast and devastating. Remember the ‘Do Not Drink or Boil’ water advisory that affected half a million Toledoans back in 2014? That was due to a particularly vicious outbreak of algal blooms in Lake Erie that deposited dangerous levels of microcystin in the water. With the continued presence of algae on that lake, exacerbated by the mounting impacts of climate change, the likelihood of these events continuing to recur is high.

While the same bill introduced by Kaptur back in 2016 was not heard in committee, I wish the best for the latest iteration. Surprisingly, while the EPA does have a health advisory for microcystin, utilities are not beholden to any enforceable standards, and the new bill seeks to rectify that. 

Even so, the elephant in the room still looms large. Limiting microcystin in our water supplies is a noble endeavour, but it is a Band-Aid that highlights a more pressing need — to tackle the overarching issue of algal blooms in our bodies of water.

In Ohio, the right moves are being made. Republican Gov. John Kasich recently signed an executive order to accord the Department of Agriculture greater powers is reducing agricultural runoff (containing phosphorus) that feeds algal blooms. 

While it is busy flowing in rivers and streams across the land, however, water tends to disregard state lines. Nationally, we need to make better collaborative efforts to tackle this issue. 

It is up to the federal government to establish more ambitious targets for phosphorus—the key factor in harmful algal blooms—that can deposited into lakes and rivers, and to develop better and more accurate mechanisms for monitoring how much phosphorus is actually ending up in our waterways. 

Furthermore, while Kasich’s actions towards limiting runoff from agriculture are a great step forward, state measures can only go so far. A far more effective approach would be for the federal government to develop national standards for agricultural runoff that pack the same punch across the country. 

Microcystin and its impact on drinking water are symptoms of a larger ill. While we do need the proposed water standards, let’s not allow a potential win to absolve us of the greater necessity — immediate, national action to tackle algal blooms and improve the health of our bodies of fresh water.

Higgins is research scientist at IISD Experimental Lakes Area.