2020 Summer Recreation: Peak Harmful Algae Season and the Pandemic
By Arohi Sharma
Quarantining and sheltering in place from COVID-19 has a lot of us going stir-crazy — myself included. With summer in full swing, more of us are itching to get outside safely. Unfortunately, we're also right in the middle of peak harmful algal bloom (HAB) season. While state agencies are understandably redirecting resources to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the resources normally used to test recreational freshwater bodies for HAB events — including the dangerous toxins that are harmful to humans and pets — are on hold. This concerns me because, as NRDC's updated What's Lurking in Your Lake assessment shows, state agencies are already under-resourced to address HABs. Furthermore, our updated scorecards and mapping efforts show there is not enough comprehensive freshwater HAB data collection. With state budgets being redirected, it's unclear whether proactive freshwater HAB data collection will get necessary funding in coming years.
First, What Are Harmful Algal Blooms — or HABs?
While HABs along our ocean coastlines — like red tide events in Florida — garner more media attention, HAB events also occur in our nation's freshwater bodies. As I wrote last year, HABs occur when excess nutrients make their way into water ecosystems. Nutrients are food for the cyanobacteria that are normally present in freshwater ecosystems. But when excess nutrients are paired with other enabling factors like warmer weather and stagnant water, cyanobacteria proliferate. Some species of cyanobacteria leech cyanotoxins, which can be harmful to humans, especially children, as well as dogs. The increased outdoor recreation in the summer, and the fact that some states' capacities are constrained due to COVID-19 response (like in Utah and Kansas), make it all the more important to be aware of these events and how they can impact us. For states like Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, which are home to tens of thousands of freshwater bodies, funding constraints could have severe impacts on efforts to prevent exposure to HABs.
Results of NRDC’s Updated Assessment
Last year, NRDC mapped freshwater HAB events across all 50 states from 2008 to 2018 because no such map exists at the federal level. This week, we updated that map to include 2019 freshwater HAB data and revised each state's freshwater HAB program scorecard. Those updated scorecards provide a baseline understanding of each state's freshwater HAB program. They also signal whether states are prepared to proactively prevent exposure to, and respond to, freshwater HAB events. As the chart below shows, there are noticeable improvements in state freshwater HAB programs from last year, but the overall outlook remains the same: State agencies don't have the resources to effectively address HABs.
Some of the improvements observed from our updated scorecards include:
- Seven more states (California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming) scored an overall "excellent" rating compared to last year.
- Five states (Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee) have created new websites that share information on freshwater HABs in their states.
- Seventeen states improved the information made available on their websites.
- Six additional states (Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) adopted cyanotoxin thresholds since last year.
- Nine additional states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee) developed and/or created response protocols for how to respond to HAB outbreaks. From this list, unfortunately, only Arkansas and Michigan have made their protocols available online.
- Nine additional states claim to be leveraging relationships with NGOs and local organizations to communicate HAB information to the public compared to last year.
- We found 11 new states using social media to communicate HAB information to the public.
Some disconcerting trends from our updated analysis include:
- 36 states do not collect comprehensive HAB data.
- 34 states do not make HAB data easily available to the public.
- 29 states do not make their response protocols available online.
- 24 states do not proactively sample for cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins.
- 20 states claim they do not have the authority to issue recreational advisories.
The Role of Data in Decision-Making
The adage "you can't manage what you don't measure" plays into my work every day. The troubling trends highlighted in NRDC's assessment have common threads: lack of data collection and inaccessibility of data.
I firmly believe that comprehensive data collection is a necessary pillar of effective decision-making. Data show trends that can help address the root causes of problems, help us understand what we know and reveal what we don't know, illuminate gaps in management and program efficacy, and provide information to hold decision-makers accountable. When states don't collect comprehensive data nor make data available to the public, it's tough to accomplish any of those goals.
The Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately crystalizes what happens when decision makers politicize and withhold data. Public health decisions and emergency response become undermined by politics instead of empowered by evidence.
Double Down on Prevention
The federal government could be preventing the kind of excess nutrient runoff that contributes to HABs by enforcing the Clean Water Act, but it isn't, so states are bearing the costly burden of testing, researching, responding, monitoring, and mitigating freshwater HAB events. Now, with the health and economic crises emerging from the pandemic, state agencies responsible for responding to freshwater HAB events are being asked to do more with less.
According to NRDC's updated assessment, 62 percent of states do not dedicate financial resources to respond to or research HAB events, which means state agencies tasked with HAB response must pull funding from other environmental remediation or water quality protection funds, compete with other agencies for funding, reduce funding for one area of HAB activity to supplement another, or simply forgo proactive testing altogether. Climate change will increase the frequency and duration of HAB events nationwide so the reactive approach to freshwater HAB response will only increase states' future costs.
While we all do everything we can to keep our families and loved ones safe this summer, NRDC will continue to hold states and the federal government accountable. Prevention is the smartest and most underutilized tool in our toolbox to combat HAB events so we will continue fighting this administration's rollbacks to the Clean Water Act. We will also continue our advocacy for healthy soil stewardship because we know that building healthy soil addresses one of the root causes of freshwater HAB outbreaks — nutrient runoff.
What to Know for 2020 Summer Recreation
I understand the need to get outdoors this summer — I'm feeling the urge too. Should you seek out lakes, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and streams, please look out for HAB indicators (e.g., blue-green colored water, a funky smell, dead fish, or caution signs, like the one below) and keep these things in mind:
- Dangerous HAB toxins that can harm your families and your pets are not visible to the naked eye. Removing blue-green algae or pond scum from the top of a freshwater body is not enough to keep your loved ones safe.
- If you see anything suspicious, stay out of the water and report the potential event to the appropriate state agency. If you need help figuring out how to report a HAB event, you can download your state's scorecard.
- Keep your eyes peeled for caution signs that inform you whether the water is safe to recreate in.
- Finally: The lack of a caution sign doesn't mean the waterbody isn't experiencing a HAB event. It's possible that your state doesn't have the resources it needs to proactively test every single freshwater body, especially with COVID-19 still surging across the United States. Call the appropriate state agency or waterbody manager to inquire whether that waterbody has been tested for cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins.
We've placed this new signage in conjunction with the Wyoming Department of Health & Wyoming Livestock Board to ensure info about #HCBs is nearby for people recreating in #Wyoming. Visit https://t.co/eXIVjPp6SU for information about advisories and further FAQs. #WDEQ pic.twitter.com/HBIDP9Flqy— Wyoming DEQ (@Wyoming_DEQ) June 15, 2020
Reposted with permission from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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