Is Your Favorite Waterway Facing the Threat of Toxic Algae?

This is my happy place:

The Lake Michigan shoreline. A place that I’ve visited nearly every year since I was five months old; the site of my wedding; the source of precious memories of digging in the sand, mucking about in boats, and teaching my children the delight of finding a Petoskey stone.

I can’t imagine showing up one year and finding that the water was toxic with scummy green algae that could cause serious health impacts if I swam in it. Or that the water could kill a dog that lapped it up. Or that eating the Lake’s famed whitefish could cause liver damage.  

But that is exactly what a growing number of people experienced this summer when they visited their favorite waterway. They arrived to find a harmful algal bloom had closed the lake to swimming and boating, or, worse yet, discovered a harmful bloom when their dog jumped in and died from exposure to toxic algae. This summer alone, dog deaths from toxic algae have been reported from North Carolina to Texas to Georgia to California.

Because harmful algae blooms have increased significantly over the past 40 years and are now found in every state in the country, NRDC set out to find out how states are tracking this growing menace and how (and whether) states are educating and warning the public of the threats posed by toxic algae. We sought data from all 50 states and posted what we received here. Please click on the map to find out if your state has reported threats to your favorite waterway and if your state is doing an adequate job of monitoring for and reporting harmful algae blooms.

To our dismay, 16 states reported no data at all. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a toxic algae problem in those states. Take Wisconsin, for example. When contacted, Wisconsin provided no data on harmful algae blooms. But our friends at the Environmental Working Group have collected media reports indicating that Wisconsin has experienced more than 30 toxic algae outbreaks over the last decade that were serious enough to warrant a news report. In fact, a young teenager tragically died in Wisconsin from ingesting toxic algae after swallowing some pond water on a golf course that contained toxic algae.    

And toxic algae is not just a public health or recreational threat. It is affecting economies across the country. As the New Republic recently reported:

Toxic algae is no longer a minor inconvenience, disrupting diners’ seafood menus for a few months. It’s a neon threat on shores across the country, devastating individuals and communities, animals and people alike, as humanity belatedly struggles to respond. In states like New Jersey and Florida where algal blooms have already devastated both fishing and tourism economies, elaborate political fights—some rife with conspiracy theory—have broken out over how to manage the crises. And although 68 percent of Americans get their drinking water from lakes and rivers, algae toxins are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

It is time for states to step up and deal with this problem. Not only must states do a better job of monitoring and reporting toxic algae outbreaks—as our map shows—but they must do a better job of preventing the problem in the first place.

The source of the problem is not mysterious:  toxic algae blooms form when excess nutrient pollution flows into a waterbody where conditions—warm and stagnant water—favor algae growth. If we want to save our favorite waterways from this growing threat, we need to reduce pollution inputs, increase flows where excessive diversions have turned flowing rivers into stagnant ponds, and tackle climate change.

NRDC is working on implementing these solutions in myriad ways.  To learn more about the causes, threats, and solutions to toxic algae blooms, check out our Freshwater Harmful Algal Blooms 101 guide here. And raise your voice with your local representative to demand more action to address this growing crisis. 

About the Authors

Kate Poole

Senior Director, Water Division, Nature program

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