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By Sarah Graddy and Robert Coleman
This summer, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is tracking outbreaks of potentially toxic algae across the U.S. We have been startled to find that these outbreaks are erupting everywhere: from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
By Karen Chapman
For a month now, South Florida Atlantic beaches have been blanketed by a sickly green, toxic algae sludge that has kept tourists away and businesses reeling.
Florida has a bigger headache this summer than most states, but algae blooms are hardly unique.
Last week, more than 100 people were sickened by toxic algae in a Utah lake fed by agricultural runoff and treated sewage water. Algae-soiled beaches are a perennial health threat in China and the Baltic region. And just two summers ago, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced the City of Toledo to ban city water for nearly half a million residents.
We know that climate change is further exacerbating our algae problem—but also that there are ways to reduce the runoff that causes water quality issues and kills marine life, year after year.
Algae blooms can be minimized and maybe even prevented if we scale up existing efforts to improve fertilizer use and soil health management—practices that can also save farmers money and boost their yields.
Two Efforts to Curb Runoff Ready to Scale
Two initiatives and private-sector partnerships are making significant headway today. If these efforts are replicated at scale, they could have a national—and even international—impact.
Thanks, in large part, to Walmart's demand for more sustainable grains, food companies such as Campbell's Soup, Unilever, Smithfield Foods and Kellogg's are helping the farmers in their supply chain to reduce fertilizer runoff through a rapidly growing program called SUSTAIN.
Spearheaded by the ag retail cooperative United Suppliers, the plan is to have 10 million acres of farmland using best practices for fertilizer management and soil health by 2020.
Precision agriculture tools can help farmers meet the growing demand for sustainably grown grains, but it's difficult to tell which tools perform as advertised. That's why we developed NutrientStar, an independent program that assesses the fertilizer efficiency claims of products on the market.
What Will It Take?
Supply chains are a powerful tool for igniting change. Companies can signal that fertilizer efficiency and good soil management are not just good for the environment, but also for improving water quality, protecting aquatic species and helping a farmer's yields and bottom line.
But to get a handle on our growing algae problem in the U.S. and overseas, there is no one silver bullet.
We need more food companies to embrace sustainable sourcing, ag retailers to replicate the SUSTAIN model in order to reach millions of growers and farmers to use NutrientStar to understand how tools perform in the field. Agricultural policies must also align with and accelerate, adoption of conservation best practices.
To turn these initiatives into tangible environmental improvements, we must work with and not against farmers and agribusiness. The people who feed our rapidly growing population—and the companies that support them—are and must be, our most important allies.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Florida's algae problem is the latest reminder that we must act now to protect our waters and combat climate change.
It's as thick as guacamole, but you don't want it near your chips. You don't want it in your water, either, but that's exactly where it is, a sprawling mat of toxic algae the size of Miami, spreading out across Florida's storied Lake Okeechobee and from there along major rivers to the state's Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
Lake Okeechobee's blue-green algae bloom is visible from space.National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Fish are dying. Beaches are closing. People are getting sick.
"The smell is so bad it will make you gag," Mary Radabaugh told officials at a town hall meeting last week near Palm Beach. "We have red eyes and scratchy throats."
Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in affected areas and is pleading with Washington for assistance to cope with widespread threats to the environment and public health.
"South Florida is facing a crisis," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, wrote in a letter July 6 to U.S. Senate leaders. "Beaches and waterways that would normally have been crowded this past Fourth of July weekend were empty as families and vacationers heeded warnings to avoid the toxic blue-green and brown algae blooms that have formed along the waterways and even out into the Atlantic Ocean."
The algae blooms that have thrown the Sunshine State into crisis are telling us three things. First, we need to protect our waters from the pollution that breeds these toxic blooms. Next, we need to fight the climate change that brings warmer temperatures that amp up algae growth. And finally, we need to demand real action on both fronts from our elected leaders at every level.
Algae blooms are a national problem. In recent years, we've seen them in water bodies as large as Lake Erie. There are a perennial problem near the mouth of the Mississippi River, where algae blooms strip oxygen from the water, creating a dead zone that threatens shrimp, fish, crabs and other marine life across a span of ocean the size of Connecticut in the rich fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico. They're a growing threat to our environment and health.
The immediate cause of the blooms can vary, but the common basics are these: Rains wash pollution from farms, septic tanks and other sources into our waters—from small streams and wetlands to great rivers and lakes—and municipal sewage systems add waste to these waters. These pollutants then supercharge the waters with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. That feeds a population explosion for algae that feast on these nutrients. Warmer temperatures accelerate the growth.
Algae blooms, though, are toxic. Cyanobacteria is what scientists call them and they can cause skin and respiratory ailments as well as gastrointestinal and liver illness. In large doses, they can even threaten the nervous system. Humans can be affected by coming in direct contact with the algae; swallowing water at the lake, river or ocean; or even breathing water spray in which algae are growing.
These toxins threaten marine life, birds and other wildlife as well. In addition, when algae die they decay, a process that robs water of oxygen, which can cause mass fish kills. Finally, a mat of algae like the one covering much of Lake Okeechobee starves underwater plant life of needed sunlight, in turn denying food to fish and other species dependent on those plants.
The fix is to set commonsense limits that keep pollution out of our waters and then to enforce those limits. That means requiring cities and towns to do a better job treating sewage and keeping it from entering the watershed after heavy rains. It means stopping large, concentrated animal feeding operations from dumping massive amounts of waste into our waters. It means applying standards to prevent industrial agricultural operations from polluting our waters with fertilizer that runs off their fields. And it means fighting the climate change that is warming our waters, helping to turn modest seasonal algae growth into crisis-level blooms.
We just wrapped up the hottest June ever recorded in the contiguous U.S.—a blistering 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average. Last year was the hottest year globally since record keeping began in 1880 and this year's first five months have been even hotter. Nineteen of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past 20 years.
Turning this around means shifting away from the dirty fossil fuels that are driving global climate change and investing in cleaner, smarter ways to power our future without imperiling the planet. The algae blooms in Florida are a reminder of how much this matters and how urgently we must act.