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?<p>While HABs along our ocean coastlines — like red tide events in Florida — garner more media attention, HAB events also occur in <a href="https://www.ksl.com/article/46773388/utahns-warned-to-watch-for-toxic-algal-blooms" target="_blank">our nation's freshwater bodies</a>. As <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/arohi-sharma/whats-lurking-your-lake-nrdc-state-hab-program-report" target="_blank">I wrote last year</a>, 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, <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/kim-knowlton/dont-stop-smell-these-harmful-algal-blooms" target="_blank">which can be harmful to humans, especially children, as well as dogs</a>. The increased outdoor recreation in the summer, and the fact that some states' capacities are constrained due to COVID-19 response (like in <a href="https://deq.utah.gov/water-quality/harmful-algal-blooms-home" target="_blank">Utah</a> and <a href="https://www.kdheks.gov/algae-illness/" target="_blank">Kansas</a>), 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.</p>
Results of NRDC’s Updated Assessment<p>Last year, <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/harmful-algal-blooms" target="_blank">NRDC mapped freshwater HAB events</a> 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.</p>
The Role of Data in Decision-Making<p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>The Trump administration's response to the <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/nrdc-responds-covid-19" target="_blank">COVID-19 pandemic</a> 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.</p>
Double Down on Prevention<p>The federal government could be preventing the kind of excess nutrient runoff that contributes to HABs by <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/jon-devine/how-clean-water-act-can-combat-harmful-algal-blooms" target="_blank">enforcing the Clean Water Act</a>, 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 <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/nrdc-responds-covid-19" target="_blank">the pandemic</a>, state agencies responsible for responding to freshwater HAB events are being asked to do more with less.</p><p>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 <a href="https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R44871" target="_blank">increase the frequency and duration of HAB events nationwide</a> so the reactive approach to freshwater HAB response will only increase states' future costs.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/protect-clean-water" target="_blank">Clean Water Act</a>. We will also continue our advocacy for <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/lara-bryant/how-healthy-soil-can-help-reduce-harmful-algal-blooms" target="_blank">healthy soil stewardship</a> because we know that building healthy soil addresses one of the root causes of freshwater HAB outbreaks — nutrient runoff.</p>
What to Know for 2020 Summer Recreation<p>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., <a href="https://www.kdheks.gov/algae-illness/download/BGA_examples.pdf" target="_blank">blue-green colored water</a>, a funky smell, dead fish, or caution signs, like the one below) and keep these things in mind:</p><ul><li>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.</li><li>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 <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/harmful-algal-blooms-methodology#appb" target="_blank">your </a><a href="https://www.nrdc.org/harmful-algal-blooms-methodology#appb" target="_blank">state's scorecard</a>.</li><li>Keep your eyes peeled for caution signs that inform you whether the water is safe to recreate in.</li><li>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, <a href="https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map" target="_blank">especially with COVID-19 still surging across the United States</a>. Call the appropriate state agency or waterbody manager to inquire whether that waterbody has been tested for cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins.</li></ul>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.
By Josh Bonifield
The Australian brewery Young Henrys is working to fight climate change with an unusual ingredient—algae.
During summer in central New York, residents often enjoy a refreshing dip in the region's peaceful lakes.
But sometimes swimming is off-limits because of algae blooms that can make people sick.
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Coastal Antarctica has seen has a curious phenomenon over the last few years. The green snow that hugs parts of its shores has started to spread farther inland. And it's all caused by the climate crisis.
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Beachgoers in California are enjoying a dazzling display of crashing bioluminescent waves in Southern California. The waves light up at night as they crash and froth in the shallow water, The Guardian reported.
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Algae in a pond may look flimsy. But scientists are using algae to develop industrial-strength material that's as hard as steel but only a fraction of the weight.
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The toxic algae blooms that have killed dogs in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have been detected in three New York City parks. Parents and pet owners are being warned to keep their kids and dogs away from the infected water, which can be fatal when dogs lap it up, swallow it while swimming, or lick it off their own fur, as the New York Times reported.
By Grace Francese
Outbreaks of potentially toxic algae are fouling lakes, rivers and other bodies of water across the U.S. Nationally, news reports of algae outbreaks have been on the rise since 2010.
What are algae blooms?<p>These smelly blooms <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tZooDsX8Fo" target="_blank">aren't actually algae at all</a>, but photosynthetic microorganisms called cyanobacteria.</p><p>Runoff from farm fields is often polluted with phosphorous and other chemicals in manure and commercial fertilizers. When this polluted runoff gets into lakes, it feeds the growth of cyanobacteria, especially in warm weather. Increasingly heavy rains and flooding, exacerbated by the climate crisis, make the problem worse. </p>
What are microcystins?<p>Many algae blooms are gross, forming a foul-smelling slime on a lake's surface, but not hazardous. But for reasons no one yet understands, some produce poisonous chemicals called cyanotoxins, including the group known as microcystins.</p>
What are the health risks?<p>Microcystin-producing cyanobacteria are a hazard to anyone, but the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/habs/" target="_blank">Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a> says children are especially vulnerable, since they're most likely to ingest water while swimming. Exposure can cause coughing, nausea, weakness, cramping and headaches, as well as long-term health effects such as liver failure.</p><p>Contact with skin, drinking <a href="https://www.ewg.org/toxicalgalblooms/#map" target="_blank">contaminated tap water</a> or eating contaminated fish can also cause health problems. Even breathing in microcystins can be harmful, and recent studies have shown that the <a href="https://www.news-press.com/story/tech/science/environment/2019/03/15/new-health-questions-raised-fgcu-research-toxic-algae-dust/3176195002/" target="_blank">toxins can become airborne</a>, drifting a mile or more from the site of the outbreak.</p>
How can I recognize and avoid algae blooms?<p>The best approach is to check with your city, county or state health departments, which may issue warnings. You can also use EWG's <a href="https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2019_microcystin/map/" target="_blank">map</a>to see whether authorities have found microcystins in a particular lake in the past few years.</p><p>If you can't find information about a specific lake, get to know the <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsgg2rqPKEE&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">warning signs</a>. Look out for dead fish or animals in or near the water, and slime that looks like blue, blue-green, bright green or dark green spilled paint.</p><p>Only experts who test the water can determine definitively whether an algae bloom is toxic. So if you come across what looks like an algae outbreak, stay away – even if you're not sure it's toxic. Don't swim in it, and do your best to avoid breathing the air around it. Contact your health department and alert local news media.</p>
What should I do if I think my child has been exposed to a toxic algae outbreak?<p>If you think your child has come into contact with toxic algae, or shows flu-like symptoms after playing in or near it, rinse them off with water. Make sure they also drink plenty of water. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.</p>
How can we prevent algae blooms?<p>Farming practices like vegetative buffers along streams and rivers help minimize runoff, but these practices won't be widely implemented without regulations that require farmers to apply them. </p><p>Ideally, states would test lakes and other bodies of water for microcystins and other cyanotoxins and warn the public when there's danger. But EWG's new report found that only 20 states test regularly for microcystins and make the data public, and often only after a delay.</p><p>The Environmental Protection Agency should regulate these toxins to protect our tap water supplies. <a href="https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/P100N2VG.PDF?Dockey=P100N2VG.PDF" target="_blank">More than two-thirds</a> of all Americans get their drinking water from utilities that rely at least in part on lakes, rivers or other surface water. Yet the EPA doesn't regulate the level of microcystins and other cyanotoxins in drinking water.</p><p>For more info about toxic algae outbreaks, check out this <a href="https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2019/05/toxic-algae-blooms-what-you-should-know" target="_blank">overview</a>. EWG also maintains a resource center on algae blooms <a href="https://www.ewg.org/key-issues/water/toxicalgae" target="_blank">here</a>.</p>
Pet owners around the country are seeing their beloved canines perish after letting them cool off in waters harboring toxic algae.
Less than a week after the official start of summer, New Jersey's largest lake was shut down by state officials due to a harmful algae bloom. Now, well into the heart of summer, Lake Hopatcong remains closed. And, several other lakes that have seen their waters turn green due to a rise in cyanobacteria have also been shut down, including Budd Lake and parts of Greenwood Lake.
By Donald Scavia
Every year in early summer, scientists at universities, research institutions and federal agencies release forecasts for the formation of "dead zones" and harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. This year the outlook is not good.
Dead zone and harmful algal bloom trends with 2019 forecasts in red.
Nutrient load trends; 2019 loads in red.
Under a worst-case climate change scenario, in which global temperatures rise nearly 5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, very heavy precipitation events in the Midwest, Great Plains and Southeast regions would increase sharply.
A two-stage ditch has a low-ﬂow channel and a vegetated side 'benches' that are ﬂooded during higher ﬂows. The grass slows water flow and allows nutrients to settle out.
Ohio State University Extension, CC BY
AT Kearney, CC BY-ND
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If you're looking to cool off in the waters of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, think again.
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