A high-profile series of dog deaths has awakened the public to the growing problem of toxic algal blooms, spurred by rising temperatures and pollution.
The blooms are emerging as a national, not just regional, concern, according to preliminary data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through July. Samples taken from New Jersey to California, and from Texas to Washington state, all show evidence of toxins given off by the blooms.
Since 2018, when the EPA started collecting the latest batch of data, algal blooms have been documented near the intakes of water treatment plants at least 130 times.
Algae occurs naturally in bodies of water across all U.S. states, with fetid blooms on ponds, lakes, and streams usually spiking each August. But the putrid, mucky overgrowth of algae in water can release toxins that sicken and kill humans and animals. These harmful blooms thrive in hotter temperatures and with exposure to nutrients used in farming, such as phosphorus.
In May, the U.S. EPA came out with recommended safety levels for state action regarding two algal-bloom produced toxins in recreational water. Those recommendations followed federal drinking water health advisories for those toxins issued in 2015, after a 2014 drinking water ban in Toledo, Ohio, sparked by a massive bloom in western Lake Erie.
While scientists have monitored harmful algal blooms and their toxins for decades, state regulators are becoming increasingly aware of their harms due to recent pet deaths. Reports of dogs dying in North Carolina in August drew national headlines, and eight additional dogs died in Michigan the same month from possible exposure to algae-linked bacteria after the canines took a dip into ponds, streams, or lakes.
“And dogs are so silly,” Susan Wilde, associate professor of aquatic science at the University of Georgia, told Bloomberg Environment. “Not only do they swim in that water and don’t give a rip, they will even eat the scum that accumulates.”
Dogs aren’t the only creatures at risk: People have gotten sick from possible toxins in seafood, and in the Southeast in 2015, there were reports of dozens of bald eagles dying due to links to toxic blue-green algae.
Lack of Federal Response
Rising temperatures and more rainfall linked to climate change will likely cause more algal blooms in the future, especially in fresh water, Shelly Tomlinson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, said in an interview.
Marc Suddleson, a program manager in that same NOAA center, also said that blooms across the world are lasting longer, getting more toxic, and appearing earlier and later in the year. And species of toxin-releasing bacteria are popping up in new locations. Half a dozen state environment regulators contacted by Bloomberg Environment repeated the same idea.
But the issue hasn’t garnered significant national federal intervention beyond research and advisories to state water regulators. Congress authorized funding, most recently last December, to spur federal research of algal blooms. And the EPA has given out $7.5 million in grants to help farmers improve water quality, as well as $1.2 million to implement state plans to reduce nutrient discharges into the Mississippi River.
An effective organization dealing with the issue across states is the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, a state-led coalition that includes members from all 50 states, according to Pam Anderson, a manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
An EPA spokeswoman pointed out that states are the main authority for setting water quality standards and effluent limits. EPA data indicates 35 states have implemented guidelines for algal bloom bacteria and toxins in recreational waterways. But the EPA is only aware of two states—Ohio and Oregon—that have used EPA guidelines to develop drinking water standards for algal bloom bacteria, she said.
Varied State Response
While some states have closely monitored and tracked toxins for years, others are just beginning to build out more robust responses.
California is on the more passive side of the spectrum. California’s rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, and other watersheds are prone to harmful algal bloom outbreaks due to the state’s warm climate, reduced water supplies from drought, and runoff from agricultural and municipal operations. But America’s most populous state lacks a statewide routine monitoring program, instead issuing guidance on health effects and relying on voluntary reports of a specific type of bloom from water agencies, tribal groups, nonprofits, and municipalities. Those reports and advisories are posted online at a statewide monitoring and alert portal, which launched in 2016.
This Labor Day, as in the two prior, regional water board scientists also collected samples at about 40 of the state’s most visited lake’s and streams with a history of blooms.
In 2018, the California State Water Resources Control Board received 190 bloom reports, and the California Department of Public Health reported 19 cases—involving eight people, four dogs, and seven fish—of suspected, probable, or confirmed incidents of sickness linked to harmful algal blooms to the Centers for Disease Control.
On the other end of the spectrum is Ohio, which has monitored blooms closely since 2010, and ramped up water testing following massive toxic algal blooms that led to drinking water shutdowns in the Toledo area in 2013 and 2014. Dina Pierce, an Ohio EPA spokeswoman, said in an email that the state is seeing “an average summer,” with water systems reporting that algal bloom-related toxins appeared in 148 pre-treated water samples this year.
Some state regulators said it was difficult to tell whether the problem is getting worse—or if monitoring and reporting is simply getting more comprehensive. The public often plays a large role by calling regulators and sending in pictures of blooms. Some states also allow citizens to alert regulators online, as through a new reporting system New York launched this year.
More news coverage can also trigger increased citizen reports. Amanda McQuaid, New Hampshire’s beach coordinator and head of the state’s algae monitoring program, said the state saw a spike in calls about possible algal blooms following a report of two dogs dying in neighboring Vermont in June. The Virginia Department of Health has also responded to a larger number of algal blooms this year than in past years, due in part to increased incidents, greater awareness, and ease of reporting, Lorrie Andrew-Spear, department spokeswoman, said in an interview.
Due to expansive territory and limited resources, state regulators often rely on volunteers to help with monitoring. About 1,500 Vermont volunteers help monitor water at Lake Champlain, where many primary beaches are closed each summer and fishing is banned due to algal blooms. The problem on the lake got so bad, the U.S. EPA had to intervene in 2016 to force the state to set limits for pollutants and implement other practices.
Dueling Agriculture and Tourism Economies
Algal blooms are increasingly putting state regulators in a bind as they search for ways to minimize the slime’s impact on tourism but not crack down on a farming industry reeling from floods, trade conflicts, and climate change.
Due to heavy rains this spring, immense amounts of manure and phosphorus runoff from Midwest farms entered the Mississippi River and exited into the Gulf of Mexico, for the first time leading to algal blooms floating onto the Gulf coast shorelines of Alabama and Mississippi.
Those southern shores experienced what is a near-annual issue in Lake Erie, where agricultural runoff spurs massive blooms that Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan have pledged to fight. An August report from a consulting group hired by Ohio local governments along Lake Erie estimates that if the states meet their 40% phosphorus reduction target, it would boost the $1.7 billion tourism and sport fishing industry by up to $437 million, and could avoid regional property value losses of $1 billion.
Blooms are also an annual occurrence on the sunny beaches of Florida, which sees a “red tide” of algae that releases toxins. Environmentalists blame the growth of these blooms on polluted inland waters pouring into the ocean.
“The problem of algal blooms is multi-faceted and complicated, but you better get to work on it,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis chair, said in an interview. “Or else you’re going to wreck the economy of Florida, which relies on tourism, clean water, and fishing.”
But in the push-and-pull between tourism and agriculture, legislatures tend to take only tentative steps toward regulation. The $33 billion Ohio agriculture and food production economy dwarfs the tourism industry and is the state’s largest economic driver, employing more than 400,000 people, according to 2015 Ohio Farm Bureau statistics.
Instead, states are pumping more money into better water management practices and grants for farmers to combat the blooms. In July, Ohio passed a budget bill with $172 million for clean water grants, including money to decrease runoff from farms through use of barriers, wetlands, and nutrient management. And New York last year appropriated $82 million for bloom abatement projects and $11 million for bloom monitoring.
Increasing regulations on farmers would be a tough sell for Midwest states already staggering from impacts of the U.S.-China trade war and unusually brutal flooding that destroyed crops this year. Ohio legislators aren’t alone in that concern, according to Deanna White, state director for Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund of Minnesota.
“Regulating agriculture is the third rail of politics in Minnesota, particularly with the farm economy being in a sort of free-fall due to the trade policies of the Trump administration,” she said in an interview.
—With assistance from David Schultz, Emily C. Dooley, Keshia Clukey, Andrew Ballard, and Adrianne Appel.