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
Art by Matteo Farinella, written by Jeremy Deaton
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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.
- Florida Gov. Scott Issues Emergency Order for Toxic Red Tide ›
- What Is Causing Florida's Algae Crisis? 5 Questions Answered ›
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.
'Guacamole-Thick' Algae Takes Over Florida's Atlantic Coast, 4 Counties Declare State of Emergency https://t.co/r3n8BhYXD4 @TheCCoalition— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1467538505.0
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.
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."
'Guacamole-Thick' Algae Takes Over Florida's Atlantic Coast, 4 Counties Declare State of Emergency https://t.co/r3n8BhYXD4 @TheCCoalition— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1467538505.0
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.
Bloom in Lake Okeechobee https://t.co/e9oIOxcqec #NASA https://t.co/tLSPUFbCss— NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)1467813603.0
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.