According to two cooperating sources, at least 21 states across the U.S. issued health advisories and warnings related to harmful algal blooms at 147 different locations of lakes, rivers and ponds during the summer of 2013.

In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, Resource Media released a report earlier this fall, “Toxic Algae: Coming Soon to a Lake Near You?” The report provides a point of view on how extreme weather and an increase in nonpoint source pollution, which is blamed on agriculture and failing septic systems, are spurring algae spread. Health impacts and economic costs are also reviewed. 

The contention by Resource Media and the National Wildlife Federation is that concern about various algae 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.

The two organizations provided their contention for worry in examples they reported as part of their tracking in the summer.

  • New York State led the US, 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 continued 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 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.”

The general claim is that heavy rains in the spring and summer increased the volume of chemical fertilizer and manure from crops and livestock operations entering waterways across the US. Scientists caution that these conditions, plus high summer temperatures, contribute to the spread of toxic algae.

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, 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 reporting on the algae situation across the nation was not just a report but also included a request for action including federal public officials to set limits on the amount of phosphorous allowed into waters; to maintain efforts to restore the nation’s 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. Whether programs of the type requested by the groups have any chance of coming out of conference committee is unknown.

No matter what happens in Congress, those concerned about algae say 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."