Summer dreams don’t include toxic algae

May 6, 2014

Spring has sprung, and May brings more than flowers (from the April showers). It’s time to start dreaming about first splashes at local spots where families will be swimming, anglers will be fishing, and paddlers will be – well, you know, dipping oars. Summer days are just around the corner, and that means staying safe in and on the water. Ensuring that the water itself is safe seems a good place to start!

Unfortunately, dangerous toxic algae outbreaks, or Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are a widespread problem in waterways across the U.S., but few states have programs dedicated to monitoring or reporting on these outbreaks. That’s the top finding in the 2014 Harmful Algal Bloom State Survey, a new 50 state survey released today by Resource Media and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Nearly three-quarters of the responding states reported that HABs are either a “somewhat serious” or a “very serious” problem, and we know from our research that many states are making significant efforts to address toxic algae. Yet too often, their efforts are stymied by a lack of funding or other resources.

The broad diversity in how – and whether – states monitor HABs, and their methods for informing the public about potentially harmful toxic algae outbreaks, confirms there’s tremendous room for improvement in how the U.S. manages this risk to public health and local economies.

Alarmingly, more than three quarters (77%) of responding states reported that they do not have a HAB hotline for the public to report HABs. Only nine states reported operating a HAB hotline that members of the public could call to report a suspected HAB.

When it comes to toxic algae, this isn’t our first toe dipped. In summer 2013, Resource Media and NWF partnered to track health warnings and advisories about freshwater HABs across the U.S. We created the first national online map showing incidents of toxic algae outbreaks, and later issued a report detailing the scope of the problem, including a troubling blind-spot: although freshwater HABs have been documented in all mainland states, no federal agency currently tracks lake closures or health warnings nationally. And because state level monitoring is by no means universal, we suspected – but could not confirm – that countless toxic algae outbreaks go undetected or unreported every year. Based on the survey results released today, we’re now even more sure that’s the unfortunate case.

To understand how pollution that feeds toxic algae starts upstream – check out this infographic.

Aileo Weinmann

Photo credit, above: Tom Archer