Algae — Society’s Big, Green … and Emerging Menace

September 18, 2019

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Algae and duckweed on Como Lake in St. Paul, Minn., in August 2010. Algae outbreaks have occurred across the United States, in Canada, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and even the Arctic Circle. PhotoMinnesota Pollution Control Agency, Flickr Creative Commons.  Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Algae — Society’s Big, Green … and Emerging Menace

By Tom Henry

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

Think of an issue that threatens public health, kills property values, wreaks havoc on tourism, drives up water rates, stymies economic development, hurts your region’s morale, mars its reputation, has psychological impacts, is a symptom of climate change, poor land use, government ineptitude, overpopulation and — frankly — just looks gross.

That’s algae. 

I remember a senior editor years ago, long before the 2014 Toledo water crisis, guffawing in the newsroom about all of the money being put into algae research, crowing like he’d just discovered an obvious example of congressional pork in the federal budget. I had to set him straight as to why algae matters.

But here’s the deal: Algae is not just a Lake Erie story.

In the five years since Toledo, a port city on one of the world’s greatest bodies of fresh water, made headlines across the world by telling its metro area’s 500,000 residents to stay away from city tap water for three days because of an algal poison that got into it, outbreaks have tortured South Florida, North Carolina, the Gulf Coast, the Pacific Northwest and, most recently, the Sacramento area.

And it is on the rise everywhere from Canada to China’s Lake Taihu and Africa’s Lake Victoria, northern Europe, the Arctic Circle, Australia and South America.


Some algae produces highly potent waterborne toxin

While Toledo has battled algae problems in Lake Erie since at least the 1930s, it is hardly the first city to be impacted by blooms. 

One of the most common forms of algae, microcystis, also is one of Earth’s oldest-living organisms. It has been with us for 3.5 billion of the planet’s estimated 5 billion years. 


Algae blooms have been on the rise globally 

the past 30 years or so, presumably because 

of climate change and nutrient runoff.


But, presumably because of climate change and nutrient runoff, it has been on the rise globally the past 30 years or so.

Other contributing factors to the rise in algal blooms are wetlands losses and hardened development allowing more runoff into tributaries, from big-box developments to housing subdivisions in the countryside. 

Yes, algae is an urban sprawl issue and a ramification of how land prices have changed and the agricultural industry has become more consolidated. 

Is all algae bad?

No. Most types of algae, especially diatoms, support the food chain at the tiny organism level.

The types that should throw up red flags aren’t even actually algae. They just look and act like algae. They’re genetically bacteria, as in cyanobacteria. They’re called “blue-green algae” (hence cyano) or harmful algal blooms, commonly known as HABs.

The important thing to remember is that HABs can produce some of the most potent waterborne toxins in nature. One of the most common toxins, microcystin, ranks above PCBs and arsenic and just below dioxin. It killed 75 people at a kidney dialysis center in 1995, and some dogs just about every year — including this year.

Blooms peak in summer, but have proven to be more resilient than previously thought. In the North, they can linger into October or longer, depending on the species. In the South, they can last even longer.


Stories offer drama, conflict, scope

Park rangers with the Kansas City District sample water during blue-green algae training at Milford Lake in Kansas in July, 2014.  Photo: Kansas City District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Marvin G. Boyer. Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Covering algae offers endless story ideas.

There is the human drama of impending threats, as well as the political drama of state and federal policy initiatives. 

There are tug-of-war battles that groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and their affiliated state farm bureaus have with charter boat captains, as well as local politicians who loathe the idea of raising water rates for more treatment chemicals and plant upgrades.

Check for industry involvement. In Ohio, one of the state’s largest employers, the globally known roller-coaster park, Cedar Point, is a big advocate for water quality. 

The algae story also involves a plethora of microbreweries, which, of course, need good water quality to make their beers, too.

There also are many opportunities for big-picture stories. 

Is the bloom chronic or a one-time annoyance? Chronic exposure can affect a region’s marketing and branding. In 1993, the nasty parasite cryptosporidium fouled Milwaukee’s water and sickened 400,000 people, nearly 40 percent of the metro area back then. 

Emotions, as well as distrust of government, lingered for a time. But the fallout was presumably not as bad as it could have been because cryptosporidium wasn’t a chronic problem.

Several lawsuits have been spurred because of algae, many of them questioning the responsibility of agriculture and illustrating how this country is headed toward more land-use disputes as the climate warms, the population grows and freshwater shortages become more acute.


Algae can be an environmental justice story, 

with disadvantaged people feeling the brunt 

of nutrient pollution downstream from area farms, 

especially when they have to pay higher water rates.


Algae can be an environmental justice story, with disadvantaged people feeling the brunt of nutrient pollution downstream from area farms, especially when they have to pay higher water rates.

The green, goopy stuff also has become a science and technology story, with satellite advances, drones and high-tech buoys becoming bigger tools.

There’s also a fascinating medical component.

The science behind toxic algal blooms is still so much in its relative infancy that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is seeking blood samples from people who believe they have been exposed to algal toxins. 

Believe it or not, there still is no medical protocol for making such a diagnosis. The University of Toledo and Wayne State University are working with the CDC on developing a way to do that.  


Reporting resources

Where can you get information about them?

In 33 of America’s 50 states, the National Sea Grant College Program is a good resource. The state sea grants and their host universities are solid places to go. 

Sea Grant is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which tracks some of the major blooms via satellite and works with scientists in the field. In western Lake Erie, NOAA does weekly flyovers during the summer, too.

There are groups such as the National Algae Association that are eager to provide information, as are many state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey. Environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation have been active on this issue for years, too.

On the local level, one of the best sources are the chemists and engineers who operate local water-treatment plants. Get to know them. They are the public’s last line of defense from algal blooms. Some will tell you much of the algae research they depend upon comes from Australia, England and other countries.

The United States, in fact, did not have a national health advisory for microcystin in tap water until 2015, and that U.S. EPA recommendation came after Congress demanded faster action in response to the 2014 Toledo water crisis. Until then, microcystin was one of some 115 micro-toxins in tap water the federal EPA had been studying for years.

Prior to that, water-treatment plant operators relied on the Geneva-based World Health Organization’s global recommendations for algal toxins. The WHO continues to be another good source.

The Washington-based trade group representing water-treatment plant operators is the American Water Works Association, a source that reporters often overlook.

Also, check out past SEJournal coverage, including:

Plus, track the latest news with headlines from EJ Today.

Tom Henry, The (Toledo) Blade’s environmental-energy writer, is editor of SEJournal’s BookShelf and Between the Lines. He has been writing about western Lake Erie algal blooms since they first came on strong again in 1995 after a 20-year absence.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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