Earlier this month, an algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the water of more than 500,000 Toledo, Ohio residents, leading to a drinking water ban lasting several days.
On a smaller but no less heartbreaking scale, a family living just down the road from our headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota experienced the passing away of their beloved pet dog, after it had found its way into a blue-green algae bloom in a nearby pond.
With stories like these, the issue of algae blooms continues to occupy the news cycles, with information regarding what is causing these blooms, what to do if you encounter one and, most troublingly, future risks.
As we reach the mid-way point of August, we also find ourselves mid-way through National Water Quality Month – a month set aside by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for us all to recognize the impact we have on this resource – and think about what more we can do to protect it for future generations. Unfortunately, with drinking water shortages, pollution and distribution challenges present on such a global scale, it can sometimes be difficult to find that one perfect niche in which we can make a difference. Fortunately, battling back against the creation and spread of algae blooms just happens to be one of those niches.
What Are Algae Blooms?
Algae can exist as anything from single-celled bacteria to large seaweeds with little to no root structure. These types of life-forms produce their own food using energy from sunlight, a process called photosynthesis, which you just may remember from science class.
When weather conditions are just right, from warmer temperatures to stronger wind patterns, nasty looking algae will grow and spread rapidly giving a distinctly mucky look to bodies of water. A form of algae, cyanobacteria – more commonly referred to as ‘blue-green algae’ – poses perhaps the greatest threat as this variety can be blamed for both the recent issues in Toledo and the passing of the family dog in St. Paul.
Dogs, farm animals and small children, in fact, are most at risk for exposure and sickness from algae blooms by virtue of the very behaviors that make them unique. Farm animals and pets are not the most discerning when it comes to their drinking water source. Children are not the most discerning when it comes to the bodies of water in which they play. And dogs double-down, by drinking anything, playing anywhere – and in the case of Labradors, especially – frantically licking their fur.
For parents and pet-owners, this resource from the California Department of Public Health is an invaluable bookmark as it provides detailed instructions regarding what you will need to do in the event that your child or pet is exposed.
Is Human Activity Solely To Blame?
Not entirely. These types of organisms are primitive forms of life that have no trouble surviving and spreading through purely natural conditions. That said, human activity can be held responsible for some of the rapid spread we are seeing.
Some types of activity called out by Nate Drag of Buffalo Rising include:
- Fertilization by commercial farms and residential lawns that can result in the runoff that helps to feed these organisms
- Reduction in wetlands that act as a natural filter for the chemicals that contribute to these blooms, through any activities that increase our footprint (carbon or otherwise)
- Pollution of plastic debris that can act as a vector helping algae blooms to spread
While the causes may be known, the global solutions are not quite as simple as they may seem. Commercial industries depend on fertilization in order to sustain crops, while also depending on clean water. This balance can be seen played out in many of the debates happening around the country over the Clean Water Act. In regards to the protection of wetlands, reduction in greenhouse gases and end of plastic pollution, well, if these were easy issues they would have already been solved.
What Individual Actions Are Most Effective Against Such A Global Issue?
As with anything else, one immediate action we can all take is to ensure we are as educated about this issue as possible. If you are reading this post, you are taking a huge step in the right direction. The more we know about what’s causing algae blooms, the more we can do to support initiatives meant to battle them back, and the more we can do in our daily lives to encourage global change.
As algae blooms have become more common in the some of our Great Lakes, many politicians on both sides of the aisle have supported legislation to help control this issue.
In July, President Obama signed the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2014, proposed by Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R.) This Republican proposed bill was championed by those on the other side, including Democratic Senator Bill Nelson from Florida and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici from Oregon. This legislation authorizes $20.5 million per year to the algae bloom battle, with a specific focus on the Great Lakes. Actively supporting this type of legislation, by contacting your elected officials or attending any local meetings where new ideas are shared, can help ensure these initiatives continue to receive support.
Support can also be provided through monetary donations to political action groups or charities that support algae bloom control, including Ocean Champions and Water Defense, an organization led by actor Mark Ruffalo and founder of OPFLEX water purification technology, Scott Smith.
There is also a great deal you can do in your personal life to help in the battle against algae blooms, few of which will have any noticeable impact on your day to day activities and many of which will seem like common sense.
First and perhaps most easily, commit to not adding to the plastic pollution problem through littering. You can even go one step further and replace your plastic water bottle with one of the eco-friendly water bottles available at our online store.
When you use lawn fertilizer, select a blend that does not use phosphorous. You can even help to support a reduction in the amount of fertilizer needed by commercial farms by choosing to buy more of your fruits and vegetables from local organic farms.
Finally, if you have the opportunity and ability, riding a bike or carpooling to work can help lessen the types of conditions that nurture the growth and spread of algae blooms. Thanks go out again to Nate Drag of Buffalo Rising, for sharing many of these ideas in his post linked above.
This is where I would love to hear your ideas regarding your experience with algae blooms, whether that means supporting legislation or making simple changes to your daily activities. I also encourage you to share any advice based on experiences you’ve had dealing with algae blooms, whether that means contamination issues with your drinking water or exposure issues with your pets or kids.
Finally, I always invite your comments sharing more about how you are helping to recognize and minimize the impact you have on water – whether during National Water Quality Month – or any other time of the year! All comments are always invited and always welcome below.
Are you a veteran, currently serving in the Armed Forces, or buying a gift for a veteran or soldier? Use the discount code ‘VETERAN’ at checkout to take 5% off your entire order!