What’s Lurking in Your Lake? NRDC State HAB Program Report

National news outlets have been riddled with stories of dog deaths, skin rashes, and fish kills resulting from harmful algal blooms (HABs) this past summer. A growing problem nationwide, HABs form when naturally occurring bacteria, called cyanobacteria, rapidly accumulate and produce toxins, called cyanotoxins. Cyanotoxins are dangerous to humans, pets, and ecosystems. Cyanobacteria grow rapidly when excess nutrients make their way into our waterways. Ineffective urban storm water infrastructure, fertilizer runoff from lawns, lax enforcement of water pollution standards, and nutrient runoff from farms and confined animal feeding operations are some of the main culprits of excess nutrients in our nation’s waterways.

Algal Bloom in California

California State Water Resources Control Board

We often hear about massive red-tides in the Gulf of Mexico that suffocate marine life and hurt fishing communities, but HABs also occur in our nation’s fresh waters. Freshwater HABs damage inland ecosystems; threaten public health; poison pets, livestock, and fish; and compromise recreational economies. Every single state has experienced a HAB, and governments have been researching and documenting the dangers of freshwater HABs for more than a decade. An NRDC assessment of states' freshwater HAB programs shows that states are not doing enough to protect their residents, families, and pets from exposure.

The assessment scored states’ freshwater HAB programs (if they have one). While the scores do not assess the quality of information made available by the state, they do reflect if and how basic HAB information is made available to the public. HABs are increasing in frequency, so just because a state scores well on the assessment does not mean it’s doing enough to prevent HABs from happening in the first place.

The chart below shows states average scores from the assessment. To learn more about how the assessment was done, click here.

While a few states are making excellent progress with their freshwater programs and developed guidelines to proactively respond to HAB events, most states are still reacting to algal blooms. This reactive approach to HABs is problematic for three reasons:

  1. It leaves the burden of checking whether a HAB is occurring to you and your family. 
  2. It doesn't allow for consistent data gathering, which limits the ability to analyze HAB trends within each state and across the country. 
  3. Climate change will increase the frequency of HABs nationwide, which means states will spend more money and resources in the long-term reacting to the problem.

The assessment shows other concerning inefficiencies and inconsistencies across state freshwater HAB programs:  

  • 11 states do not have a website that explains what HABs are and where they’re happening.
  • 17 states do not have a clear way for a member of the public to report a HAB.
  • 19 states do not have a protocol that details how the state should respond to HABs.
  • 16 states do not collect HAB data.
  • 40 states do not provide HAB data online.
  • 27 state agencies claim they do not have the authority to issue recreational/public health advisories.
  • 42 states do not dedicate funding specifically for HAB response, which means state agencies use funds from other sources to respond to blooms. The lack of dedicated funding for HAB response stresses existing state water quality and safety agency resources.
  • 18 states had not adopted thresholds for unsafe exposure to cyanotoxins even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended thresholds in 2017.

For the sake of protecting public, pet, and environmental health, states need to remedy these gaps quickly. Hopefully, with this assessment, states learn from each other and understand the changes they need to make. Specifically, states should:

  • Collect HAB data and make the data available to the public, ideally on a map that shows where HABs are happening (like these maps from Kansas and Oregon).  
  • Develop and make publicly available response protocols that detail how to test for and respond to harmful algal bloom events.
  • Proactively test recreational water bodies for cyanotoxins. States can use existing water testing requirements to proactively test for cyanotoxins.
  • Develop more comprehensive outreach programs to proactively prevent exposure to HABs.

In addition to these quick fixes, states need to double down on their efforts to prevent excess nutrients from entering waterways. You can learn more about how NRDC is fighting to limit sources of pollution here.

About the Authors

Arohi Sharma

Policy Analyst; Water, Agriculture, & Wildlife; Nature Program

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