Toxic Algae: The Sleeper Issue that Plagues American Communities

January 21, 2020

When the New York Times released its Year in Pictures for 2019, alongside photos of Megan Rapinoe’s iconic stance following the U.S. Women’s World Cup win, and a group of pro-democracy protestors clutching umbrellas in Hong Kong, appeared an aerial photo of Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, infested by an algae outbreak so severe it made swimming in the lake unsafe most of the summer. This photo’s spot on the list demonstrates how this issue, at the intersection of water pollution, climate change and public health, captivates journalists and community members alike. 

Arresting imagery isn’t the only reason why toxic algae has grabbed the attention of the media, local residents and environmental advocates across the country. These outbreaks have real economic impacts. As one riverside kayak outfitter lamented to us this year, “Almost like clockwork, once the nightly news reports on toxic algae show up, kayaking trips start getting canceled, and there goes my season.” 

There is good reason for alarm. Every summer, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams all across the country sprout a mantle of toxic algae: a smelly, green goo. These outbreaks are fueled by rainfall washing pollution like farm manure and fertilizer into waterways. The algae is quite literally toxic, dangerous for pets and people, making water un-swimmable and imperiling sources of drinking water. Last year alone, algae outbreaks killed several dogs.

Back in 2013 Resource Media recognized the potential for toxic algae to help expose the real threats to people’s livelihoods and families posed by water pollution. We were there to help publicize the infamous outbreak in Toledo, Ohio in the summer of 2014, which shut down drinking water supplies for the entire city for three days, and helped elevate toxic algae as a dangerous public health crisis among national news outlets. As we pitched reporters and provided contextual data about how widespread the problem is, we noticed that many stories still treated these outbreaks as an “act of God” rather than pointing to specific pollution prevention solutions. So Resource Media created an infographic that made the connection between green slime and water pollution upstream that was posted on the EPA’s website.

In 2019, Resource Media again stepped in to provide communications resources to organizations fighting toxic algae outbreaks in their communities. These groups are pushing for more commonsense regulations for monitoring, testing, notification and setting stricter limits on the amount of pollution entering waterways. We are responding to a need for a centralized resource for all groups working on this issue, to share strategies, imagery and community engagement approaches. Boosting communications capacity for the toxic algae makes sense for several reasons. 

  • Toxic algae poses an immediate, visible and actionable threat that members of the public can easily see. Many water issues lurk beneath the surface, or are only revealed through water sample testing—but toxic algae outbreaks are highly visible and directly impact people. People are able to compare events to previous years and learn when things are getting worse. Local residents and visitors are often inconvenienced, embarrassed or frightened by these events, and want to do something to restore their environment back to a healthier state.  
  • Toxic algae forces people to see systems. Toxic algae doesn’t just appear, it’s the end product of a larger system made up of powerful players including corporate conglomerates, lobbyists and local and federal government. Agricultural trade policies, subsidies and incentives have resulted in larger industrial farms, more fertilizers and manure, more spreading of manure onto fields and more flow of nitrogen pollution into waterways. This, combined with climate change, warmer waters and more sunlight, has created the perfect breeding ground for toxic algae. Explaining this system through easy-to-grasp graphics and personal stories opens people’s eyes to systems that have been purposely veiled from public view and engagement. 
  • Toxic algae brings together numerous interests who all want to see improvement on this issue. Sustainable food advocates want to see fewer Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and more small, independent farms. Water quality advocates want to restore outdoor recreation and healthy habitats for wildlife. Animal rights advocates want to ensure that dogs aren’t exposed to unsafe places and end up serving as “canaries in the coal mine” for toxic bodies of water. Local fishing and tourism businesses know that their economic livelihoods depend on clean water. While it can be difficult to reconcile numerous interests and priorities, these parties agree that more solutions are needed to curb this urgent problem. And more interests engaged in the issue mean a more powerful movement for change. 

Yet, despite its visible nature, clean water and sustainability advocates have struggled to truly capitalize on the potential provided by such a compelling threat. With busy staff and a variety of issues to track, most organizations focus on toxic algae only when outbreaks happen. As a result, news coverage tends to focus on outbreaks as on-off events—not part of a larger systemic problem. Resource Media has sought to change that by equipping advocates with tools and templates to organize their own communications strategies and keep toxic algae top of mind before summer outbreaks happen. 

Thanks to initial funding from the Park Foundation, Resource Media has created an online “hub” for advocates that has been up and running since late summer, the peak of the toxic algae season. This new Toxic Algae Hub has proven to be a successful point of collaboration, networking and resource sharing among groups large and small, national and local, that are working to reduce toxic algae outbreaks. We’ve updated and shared infographics on the pollution sources that result in toxic algae, as well as potential solutions. We’ve provided free access to an email and social call-to-action platform that allows advocacy groups to mobilize constituencies to directly email lawmakers, asking for change. We’ve shared communications training documents and tipsheets on topics including media outreach and reporter pitching, multicultural communications, social media management (dealing with trolls) and social media strategies. We share news updates, communications observations and celebrate successes and new scientific findings via weekly email updates. And we’re available on-call for anyone who needs specific communications support on their local projects. For example forthcoming, we’ll be working with a key local group to provide them with messaging, talking points and a spokesperson training project around their work in the Gulf and Mississippi River watershed. 

With the right focus and engagement, toxic algae has the potential to galvanize attention to water pollution from unsustainable agricultural practices. But doing so will require dedicated attention and coordination by many advocacy organizations. The Toxic Algae Hub is one important step toward greater coordination and collaboration. 

We’re hoping to continue to expand the hub in 2020 as we head toward warmer weather and more health, recreational and economic disruptions from toxic algae. If you’d like to join the Hub or learn more about how to support this effort, contact Rachele Huennekkens at rachele@resource-media.org. Even though it’s only January, the season of green slime—and the public engagement opportunity these visible and visceral events provide—are just a few months away.

— Sian Wu, Managing Director