Harmful Algal Blooms Are Plaguing Our Waters

Posted in: Crisis Response, Health effects, United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water quality
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Photo Credit: GRACE Communications Foundation

Article courtesy of Care 2 Cause Editors| November 15, 2015 | Care2 | Shared as educational material

Being green is a point of pride-except when it describes the color of a river, lake or other waters. That green tinge means algae, which can often be harmful algal blooms (HABs) that muck up waters around the United States. Algal blooms arise from a preponderance of nutrients deposited by heavy spring and summer rains that stick around and thrive in the warmer, shallower waters of late summer and fall.

As we’ve written before, pesky algal blooms crop up because of excessive amounts of nutrients-often nitrogen and phosphorus-that act as super-charged feed for naturally occurring algae. These algae are eaten by bacteria, and in the process starve the water of oxygen, creating fish-killing dead zones. The blue-green algae that appear in ponds and lakes throughout the country (and world) can also produce toxic chemicals like cyanobacteria that are harmful to drink and even touch. (Note that algae varieties can range in colors from red to brown and more.) While the sources of nutrient pollution are plentiful, the major ones are runoff from urban streets and farm fields loaded with fertilizers and manure. Close behind are sources such as industrial discharge, wastewater treatment plant overflows and the burning of fossil fuels.

In the United States and globally, there is so much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that ends up in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans that the Earth is being pushed beyond its ability to manage them, as determined by scientists who developed the Planetary Boundaries framework. Synthetic fertilizers, while beneficial for crop cultivation, are of particular concern when total quantities overwhelm the global ecosystem’s ability to absorb them. By most accounts, climate change makes it even worse as many places will oscillate between cycles of “drought and deluge.” Harder rains carry even more nutrient-laden runoff into waters that become warmer and more conducive to algal growth.

Harmful algae blooms are a constant water quality problem that are often, but not always, plain to see. Below is a small sample of how recent HABs have afflicted our waters:

  • Scientists from California to Alaska are studying the enormous red algae bloom that seems to correspond to the vast “warm blob” sitting in the Pacific Ocean-a bloom that might be the biggest ever recorded. Some fisheries in Washington State, Oregon and California have been closed for fear of elevated levels of the neurotoxin domoic acid that build up in marine creatures like oysters and finfish and can work its way up the food chain and harm birds, marine mammals and humans.
  • The Ohio River experienced a HAB this summer that has stretched over 600 miles and four states with extremely high toxins. Fortunately no water utilities that draw from the river were forced to shut down, but the incident roused public officials and water managers along the Ohio River to the reality that algal blooms require vigilance as they are likely to increase.
  • Head north for an update to the 2014 Toledo, Ohio, HAB drinking water contamination that entered the intake in Lake Erie’s western basin. The incident spurred Congress to ask the EPA to write the first-ever recommendations on toxic microcystin in drinking water. Dangerously high readings of the poisonous microcystin (a cyanobacteria), produced by the HAB, led to the three-day shutdown of the city’s drinking supply.
  • There is a water quality crisis in Iowa with waterways teeming with excess nutrients from fertilizers and manure. The agriculture-dominated state has so much polluted runoff that there is nitrate (a nitrogen byproduct), algae and bacterial contamination in waters throughout the state. There’s new recognition of the problem after the Des Moines Water Works sued three Iowa counties to clean up their water supply, the Raccoon River, which requires a complete overhaul of how many farms use land and water.
  • Florida’s Indian Lagoon is teetering on the edge of ecosystem collapse from incessant algal blooms caused by leaky sewage systems and fertilizer runoff. The seagrass that provides the foundation of the food web there has been virtually wiped out from the terrible 2011 “super-bloom,” and since then, 70 dolphins and hundreds of manatees and pelicans deaths have been linked with the HABs in the lagoon. With a focus on the lagoon’s pollution in 2015, help is on the way with dredging, sewage and septic tank upgrades, along with green planting and shellfish bed seeding to capture runoff, among other strategies.
  • Ponds and lakes in western New York have seen a rise in HABs in the summer of 2015, sadly including this author’s boyhood haunt, Chautauqua Lake. An especially warm, dry summer has seen algae growth creep up, which has hindered recreational swimming, boating and fishing.

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This piece was adapted from an Ecocentric Blog post: http://www.gracelinks.org/blog/6095/to-

Photo Credit: GRACE Communications Foundation


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