InsideClimate News: Toxic Algae Blooms Occurring More Often, May Be Caught in Climate Change Feedback Loop

May 15, 2018
Toxic Algae Blooms Occurring More Often, May Be Caught in Climate Change Feedback Loop
By Georgina Gustin

Blooms of harmful algae in the nation’s waters appear to be occurring much more frequently than in the past, increasing suspicions that the warming climate may be exacerbating the problem.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published newly collected data on Tuesday reporting nearly 300 large blooms since 2010. Last year alone, 169 were reported. While NOAA issues forecasts for harmful algal blooms in certain areas, the advocacy group called its report the first attempt to track the blooms on a nationwide scale.

The study comes as scientists have predicted proliferation of these blooms as the climate changes, and amid increasing attention by the news media and local politicians to the worst cases.

Just as troubling, these blooms could not only worsen with climate change, but also contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

EWG based its study on news reports and before-and-after satellite images that show the expansion of the blooms. Though the rapid increase in the annual numbers might reflect more thorough observations and reporting in recent years, Craig Cox, who focuses on agriculture for EWG, said the numbers may still be on the low side.

In 2014, the news was especially urgent in Toledo, where a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie forced health officials to declare the water unsafe for drinking and bathing. Harmful algae blooms had been common in the western part of Lake Erie from the 1960s through the 1980s, but they had diminished with better pollution controls—until about a decade ago, according to NOAA.

Now the blooms—thick undulating mats of green—have become an annual occurrence there.

The root cause of the problem lies mainly in agricultural runoff that contains phosphorus, which encourages algal growth.

At a recent conference, the mayor of Toledo pointed the blame for the continuing problem squarely at the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, saying that lawmakers in the state were too intimidated by the group to support legislation to deal with the problem. “It’s probably the most powerful interest group in Ohio,” Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said in an interview.

Kapszukiewicz noted that the city spent billions of dollars upgrading its water treatment facility more than a decade ago and that there have been no sewage overflows into the lake since then, and yet the blooms are getting worse. “Toledoans are paying for a problem we didn’t create,” he said.

“Nutrient runoff” comes from sewage and other sources, but mostly from fertilizer and manure, which are especially high in phosphorus.

The agricultural industry in Ohio and elsewhere has long been aware of the problem. Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the bureau had been looking into it for years. But when it came to legislative and regulatory measures, Cornely said: “You’ve heard the old saying, ‘You can have it fast or right.’ We want it to be right.”

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