Toxic Algae Plagues the United States
National Wildlife Federation
24 September 2013
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
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 non-point 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:
- No federal agency currently tracks lake closures or
health warnings nationally.
- Few economic studies have assessed the national cost of
freshwater hazardous algal blooms.
- A minority of states monitor lakes and rivers for
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
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.”