Summer with a side of algae
Add Odell Lake and Ross Island to the list.
As summer heats up, harmful algae blooms are taking off across the state.
The Oregonian recently reported that three people fell ill from ingesting toxic algae at Lake Billy Chinook in July, and highlighted that the state’s monitoring system is made up of a hodge-podge of unfunded partners that can cover only a fraction of our public waterways.
The toxins released by blue-green algae blooms can be harmful to humans, even at low levels, with effects ranging from rashes to neurological and reproductive problems. Pets and animals are especially vulnerable: 32 cows died in one location this year from drinking water in a reservoir with a blue-green algae bloom. And fish and other aquatic life can die from toxic exposure, or be affected by the changes in pH levels and reductions in oxygen that the blooms also cause.
With more of Oregonians’ favorite summer swimming and boating spots developing a blue-green sludge, now is the time to be talking about why this is happening and what we can do to stop it.
We wrote about how to stay safe around algae earlier this month, but what is going on under the surface affects more than just summer fun. Although toxic algae is a challenging environmental and public health issue in itself, it’s also an indicator that other pollution and water quality problems exist in our lakes and rivers.
Harmful algae blooms – otherwise referred to as blue-green algae or cyanobacteria – are caused by the perfect storm of nutrient pollution – too much nitrogen and phosphorous from common fertilizers, manure and other sources flowing into waterways when it rains – and warm, slow moving water. Once it takes hold in a water body, it frequently reappears year after year.
But what can we do?
Many of the root causes of harmful algae blooms are human driven, and with the right direction, we can reduce their frequency and prevent them from taking hold in new bodies of water.
First we need to find ways to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution that is flowing into our waterways:
- Farmers and ranchers can use best management practices (page 3 of this PDF) to “right-size” fertilizer use.
- Green infrastructure in cities, like rain gardens filled with native plants, help filter nutrients before they end up in waterways.
- Reducing use of lawn fertilizers.
And second, we need to invest in strategies to cool our rivers and restore their natural, flowing functions:
- Rivers and fish need shade to stay cool. Watershed councils do a great job of working with private landowners to restore native stream banks with native plants to provide shade and help filter nutrient runoff.
- Keep rivers flowing by leaving more water in streams. Understanding how much water we have and how much we are using on farms and in cities is critical to restoring the health of important streams and waterways.
Harmful algae blooms are affecting public health, ecosystems and economies in growing numbers across the country. OEC is working to reduce these impacts in Oregon by advocating for stronger water quality programs through Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, better funding for projects that restore riparian areas along streams, and state programs that reduce sources of pollution.
OEC’s water team will continue to track the algae problem as it grows throughout the state this summer and keep you informed of actions you can take to reduce water pollution in your local waterways.