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Toxic Algae Plagues U.S.

Health + Wellness

National Wildlife Federation

Summer should be a time for fishing, boating and swimming with family on our nation’s lakes. Yet instead of fresh clear waters, many are encountering mats of thick blue-green harmful algal blooms (HABs)—also known as toxic algae.

A new, first-of-its-kind national online map by the communications firm Resource Media shows that 21 states across the U.S. have issued health advisories and warnings related to harmful algal blooms at 147 different locations on lakes, rivers and ponds this summer.

In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, Resource Media is also releasing a report, Toxic Algae: Coming Soon to a Lake Near You? The report provides a look at how extreme weather and an increase in nonpoint source pollution from agriculture and failing septic systems are spurring its spread. Health impacts and economic costs are also reviewed. 

The scourge continues to fly beneath the radar of national attention, in part because:

  1. No federal agency currently tracks lake closures or health warnings nationally.
  2. Few economic studies have assessed the national cost of freshwater hazardous algal blooms.
  3. A minority of states monitor lakes and rivers for algal-related toxins.

Tracking of toxic algae showed that this summer:

  • New York State led the U.S., with warnings issued at 50 different lakes and ponds.
  • For the first time, Kentucky officials found toxic algae at four lakes, which collectively draw more than 5 million visitors a year. Some visitors to the lakes complained of rashes and intestinal problems.
  • Western Lake Erie continues to experience a resurgence of toxic algal blooms, leading to health advisories and “do not drink” orders being issued by the state of Ohio. In contrast, the state of Michigan, which shares some of the same waters but does not currently have a formal monitoring or advisory program, issued no health advisories during that same time period.
  • In southeast Florida, a massive toxic algae outbreak covered St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon with fluorescent green slime this summer, prompting warnings from health officials to not touch the water. Scores of dolphins, manatees, birds and fish have died.

“No one wants a green, sick lake,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director, National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “And yet that’s what communities across the country are facing. Excessive runoff is feeding an explosion of toxic algae that is choking our waters, closing our beaches, and posing a threat to people, pets and wildlife. This is a national problem that demands a national solution.”

Heavy rains this spring and summer increased the volume of chemical fertilizer and manure from crops and livestock operations entering waterways across the U.S. Scientists caution that these conditions, plus record-high summer temperatures, contribute to the spread of toxic algae and associated lake closures. Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, can produce liver and nerve toxins that make people and pets sick, and even kill dogs. In addition to public health threats, toxic algae blooms in lake communities have a significant effect on local economies by reducing lake-related tourism.

“Toxic algae outbreaks slimed Florida’s inland waters this summer, killing wildlife, hurting property values and devastating tourism revenue,” said Manley Fuller, president, Florida Wildlife Federation. Thousands of residents have protested, calling for a statewide emergency management plan to stop the toxic slime.”

The report urges federal public officials to set limits on the amount of phosphorous allowed into waters; to maintain efforts to restore the nation’s great waters, including the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and others; and to pass a strong Farm Bill that pays farmers to take specific actions to help protect soil and water quality.

Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Farm Bill jeopardizes funding for programs like the Conservation Stewardship program aimed at helping farmers protect water quality through implementation of agricultural best management practices. Those include planting cover crops, restoring wetlands or creating buffer strips to filter farm runoff.

More federal attention to the problem is needed. “The reach and extent of harmful algal blooms has likely been under-reported due to the lack of a national program to track health warnings and lakes closures,” said Alan Wilson, associate professor of limnology at Auburn University. “Regional monitoring networks could help fill this important scientific void, and tell us more about how climate change, land use and nutrient pollution influence HAB frequency and intensity."

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.

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