Experts: Algae Blooms, Dead Zones Must Be Addressed

By Aleksandra Robinson
Capital News Service
Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009

WASHINGTON - Algae blooms and dead zones in America's waterways -- including the Chesapeake Bay -- represent a significant health risk for Americans, as well as a threat to the nation's economy, said Robert Magnien, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Silver Spring-based Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research.

Magnien spoke Thursday before the House Committee on Science and Technology's Energy and Environment Subcommittee. Legislators were taking testimony on a draft bill to reauthorize a 1998 bill and form an action plan for addressing harmful algae blooms (HABs) and hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in waterways frequently referred to as "dead zones."

"HABs, which now occur in all U.S. states, are a growing problem worldwide," Magnien said. "Similarly, hypoxia occurs in over 300 U.S. coastal systems."

Minimizing hypoxic zones and decreasing the occurrence of harmful algae blooms are both goals for increasing the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the testimony focused on HABs, which can be a cause of hypoxia.

Magnien said NOAA has already begun to develop regional research and action plans required by the draft bill.

The plans NOAA is developing, he said, would "provide advanced early warning of HABs, minimize fishery closures, protect the economy of coastal communities, mitigate the impacts to marine life and protect public health."

In written testimony, Donald Scavia, a University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, professor and head of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, wrote about hypoxia in the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie. Most hypoxic zones, he said, are driven by nutrient pollution.

"Among the three systems, the Chesapeake is most vulnerable to nutrient loads from air emissions because of the amount of high density population centers," he wrote.

Despite efforts over the past 10 years to control HABs and hypoxia, the Chesapeake Bay has seen no significant decreases in either area, said Beth McGee, a senior water quality scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"It's not improving because we're not reducing the pollution load," she said.

In his testimony, Magnien urged the committee to more closely define NOAA's role in the bill.

"The role of research within NOAA is not specified in the legislation," he said. "Such authorization assures that the valuable research conducted within NOAA will be continued."

Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, is a member of the energy and environment subcommittee, but he was not present at the hearing.

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