2020 Summer Recreation: Peak Harmful Algae Season and the Pandemic

As many head to local swimming holes for a socially distant way to cool off, an updated NRDC report shows state agencies are largely unable to keep up with the growing threat of harmful algal blooms.
Visitors enjoy a day in Buffalo National River near Tyler Bend, Arkansas.
Credit: T. Fondriest/National Park Service

As many head to local swimming holes for a socially distant way to cool off, an updated NRDC report shows state agencies are largely unable to keep up with the growing threat of harmful algal blooms.

Quarantining and sheltering in place from COVID-19 has a lot of us going stir-crazy—myself included. With summer in full swing, more of us are itching to get outside safely. Unfortunately, we’re also right in the middle of peak harmful algal bloom (HAB) season. While state agencies are understandably redirecting resources to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the resources normally used to test recreational freshwater bodies for HAB events—including the dangerous toxins that are harmful to humans and pets—are on hold. This concerns me because, as NRDC’s updated What’s Lurking in Your Lake assessment shows, state agencies are already under-resourced to address HABs. Furthermore, our updated scorecards and mapping efforts show there is not enough comprehensive freshwater HAB data collection. With state budgets being redirected, it’s unclear whether proactive freshwater HAB data collection will get necessary funding in coming years.

First, what are harmful algal blooms—or HABs?

While HABs along our ocean coastlines—like red tide events in Florida—garner more media attention, HAB events also occur in our nation’s freshwater bodies. As I wrote last year, HABs occur when excess nutrients make their way into water ecosystems. Nutrients are food for the cyanobacteria that are normally present in freshwater ecosystems. But when excess nutrients are paired with other enabling factors like warmer weather and stagnant water, cyanobacteria proliferate. Some species of cyanobacteria leech cyanotoxins, which can be harmful to humans, especially children, as well as dogs. The increased outdoor recreation in the summer, and the fact that some states’ capacities are constrained due to COVID-19 response (like in Utah and Kansas), make it all the more important to be aware of these events and how they can impact us. For states like Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, which are home to tens of thousands of freshwater bodies, funding constraints could have severe impacts on efforts to prevent exposure to HABs.

Buffalo River, the same river pictured above, suffers from a freshwater HAB outbreak
Credit: National Park Service

Results of NRDC’s updated assessment

Last year, NRDC mapped freshwater HAB events across all 50 states from 2008 to 2018 because no such map exists at the federal level. This week, we updated that map to include 2019 freshwater HAB data and revised each state’s freshwater HAB program scorecard. Those updated scorecards provide a baseline understanding of each state’s freshwater HAB program. They also signal whether states are prepared to proactively prevent exposure to, and respond to, freshwater HAB events. As the chart below shows, there are noticeable improvements in state freshwater HAB programs from last year, but the overall outlook remains the same: State agencies don’t have the resources to effectively address HABs.

Results from NRDC’s “What’s Lurking in Your Lake”

Some of the improvements observed from our updated scorecards include:

  • Seven more states (California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming) scored an overall “excellent” rating compared to last year.
  • Five states (Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee) have created new websites that share information on freshwater HABs in their states.
  • Seventeen states improved the information made available on their websites.
  • Six additional states (Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) adopted cyanotoxin thresholds since last year.
  • Nine additional states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee) developed and/or created response protocols for how to respond to HAB outbreaks. From this list, unfortunately, only Arkansas and Michigan have made their protocols available online.
  • Nine additional states claim to be leveraging relationships with NGOs and local organizations to communicate HAB information to the public compared to last year.
  • We found 11 new states using social media to communicate HAB information to the public.

Some disconcerting trends from our updated analysis include:

  • 36 states do not collect comprehensive HAB data.
  • 34 states do not make HAB data easily available to the public.
  • 29 states do not make their response protocols available online.
  • 24 states do not proactively sample for cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins.
  • 20 states claim they do not have the authority to issue recreational advisories.

The role of data in decision-making

The adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” plays into my work every day. The troubling trends highlighted in NRDC’s assessment have common threads: lack of data collection and inaccessibility of data.

I firmly believe that comprehensive data collection is a necessary pillar of effective decision-making. Data show trends that can help address the root causes of problems, help us understand what we know and reveal what we don’t know, illuminate gaps in management and program efficacy, and provide information to hold decision-makers accountable. When states don’t collect comprehensive data nor make data available to the public, it’s tough to accomplish any of those goals.

The Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately crystalizes what happens when decision makers politicize and withhold data. Public health decisions and emergency response become undermined by politics instead of empowered by evidence.

Double down on prevention

The federal government could be preventing the kind of excess nutrient runoff that contributes to HABs by enforcing the Clean Water Act, but it isn’t, so states are bearing the costly burden of testing, researching, responding, monitoring, and mitigating freshwater HAB events. Now, with the health and economic crises emerging from the pandemic, state agencies responsible for responding to freshwater HAB events are being asked to do more with less.

According to NRDC’s updated assessment, 62 percent of states do not dedicate financial resources to respond to or research HAB events, which means state agencies tasked with HAB response must pull funding from other environmental remediation or water quality protection funds, compete with other agencies for funding, reduce funding for one area of HAB activity to supplement another, or simply forgo proactive testing altogether. Climate change will increase the frequency and duration of HAB events nationwide so the reactive approach to freshwater HAB response will only increase states’ future costs.

While we all do everything we can to keep our families and loved ones safe this summer, NRDC will continue to hold states and the federal government accountable. Prevention is the smartest and most underutilized tool in our toolbox to combat HAB events so we will continue fighting this administration’s rollbacks to the Clean Water Act. We will also continue our advocacy for healthy soil stewardship because we know that building healthy soil addresses one of the root causes of freshwater HAB outbreaks—nutrient runoff.

What to know for 2020 summer recreation

I understand the need to get outdoors this summer—I’m feeling the urge too. Should you seek out lakes, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and streams, please look out for HAB indicators (e.g., blue-green colored water, a funky smell, dead fish, or caution signs, like the one below) and keep these things in mind:

  • Dangerous HAB toxins that can harm your families and your pets are not visible to the naked eye. Removing blue-green algae or pond scum from the top of a freshwater body is not enough to keep your loved ones safe.
  • If you see anything suspicious, stay out of the water and report the potential event to the appropriate state agency. If you need help figuring out how to report a HAB event, you can download your state’s scorecard.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for caution signs that inform you whether the water is safe to recreate in.
  • Finally: The lack of a caution sign doesn’t mean the waterbody isn’t experiencing a HAB event. It’s possible that your state doesn’t have the resources it needs to proactively test every single freshwater body, especially with COVID-19 still surging across the United States. Call the appropriate state agency or waterbody manager to inquire whether that waterbody has been tested for cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins.

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