Initiatives to Understand, Combat Algal Blooms Multiply

Federal efforts to control algal blooms expanded significantly in late summer. The U.S. and Canada have established a binational working group to adopt practices to reduce phosphorus levels for Lake Erie by early 2016. Its recommendations include a 40-percent reduction in phosphorus entering central and western Lake Erie from both nations. Further, the House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this year to improve the scientific understanding and mitigation of algal toxins in the Great Lakes and other surface waters.

By Patrick Crow

Federal efforts to control algal blooms expanded significantly in late summer, in parallel with the annual return of a major occurrence on Lake Erie.

Some of the initiatives were in direct response to an August 2014 algal bloom in Lake Erie, when the presence of the cyanotoxin microcystin in the drinking water of Toledo, Ohio, forced the city to issue a “do not drink the water” advisory for nearly 500,000 citizens. Cyanobacteria can produce toxins that can kill animals and cause illness in humans (see “Washington Update,” WW, June 2015).

This year’s Lake Erie bloom did not seem to be as severe as last year’s but threatened to become the second largest on record. And on Ohio’s southern border, a major algal bloom on the Ohio River prompted a spate of recreational advisories.

A major cause of algal blooms is fertilizer-laden runoff from farms. The U.S. and Canada have established a binational working group to adopt practices to reduce phosphorus levels for Lake Erie by early 2016.

That working group presented its recommendations in late June. They included a 40% reduction in phosphorus entering central and western Lake Erie from both nations. Those recommendations are now awaiting public comment.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill to improve the scientific understanding and mitigation of algal toxins in the Great Lakes and other surface waters.

The bill’s author, Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), said, “Algal toxins continue to be a growing threat to public drinking water, not just in Ohio but across the country.”

The Senate approved the bill in August and it was quickly signed into law. Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must draft a plan to asses and manage the risks from algal toxins in public drinking water within 90 days.

EPA quickly asked for public input regarding what further information is needed, what water protection practices hold the greatest promise, and advice on other issues.

Also in August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture earmarked an additional $5 million to reduce nutrient pollution in the western Lake Erie Basin.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) applauded that decision. AWWA CEO David LaFrance noted, “Controlling nutrient pollution in water bodies is the first and most effective way to reduce algae blooms that can produce cyanotoxins. Harmful algal blooms present an important public health challenge and must be addressed from multiple perspectives.”

AWWA recently published a guide for cyanotoxins for water utility managers. It details technical tools that can assess the effectiveness of treatment processes in preventing exposure to cyanotoxins.

In September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced 12 grants totaling nearly $2.1 million for research on hypoxia and harmful algal blooms.

The projects will seek new monitoring technologies to address emerging blooms, and investigate the role of climate change, nutrient pollution, and other factors to better predict and manage blooms.

NOAA noted, “Outbreaks of toxic algal blooms along the Pacific coast have shut down commercial and recreational shell fishing in portions of three states. Also, the large, oxygen-depleted ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico imperils valuable commercial and recreational fisheries, and the persistent Lake Erie bloom has threatened public water supplies and the area’s $12.9 billion tourism industry.”

It said every U.S. coastal state has suffered a bloom of harmful algae over the last decade and species have emerged in new locations that were not previously known to have problems.


About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.

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