Four questions about harmful algal blooms, answered

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Algae are a crucial part of many ecosystems, but they can also overrun and choke out other organisms in the environment. There are many ways for people to combat the rise of these algal blooms before they become too destructive. Photo credit: Carol M. Highsmith via the Library of Congress.

By Cristobal Spielmann

What are harmful algal blooms? 

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are large outgrowths of algae in bodies of water that result from an excess of nutrients, sunlight and other conditions that allow for such growth. Humans have a direct hand in causing some of these conditions. These blooms are fed by nutrients, like phosphorus, from fertilizer runoff in agriculture operations. Increasing temperatures from climate change only add to the growth. 

Learn more about HABs from our previous coverage here.

What’s been done on the local level to combat HABs? 

In communities alongside bodies of water that collect excess nutrients in runoff, such as those in coastal Louisiana or those along Lake Erie, the state agencies and municipal governments directly impacted by HABs are responsible for dealing with the blooms. 

A recent call for action comes from George A. Elmaraghy, the former chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and outspoken opponent of the coal industry during the governorship of Republican John Kasich. Elmaraghy wrote an op-ed in May of this year detailing a harsher, legal solution. Elmaraghy suggests that the OEPA implement a total maximum daily load for phosphorus as a way to reduce the amount of phosphorus that could enter Lake Erie as a pollutant. If implemented, a TMDL would clearly define the amount of phosphorus allowed in Lake Erie waters as a maximum limit. This would not only be an enforceable measure at the state level, Elmaraghy believes, but it would also live up to the state’s goal of a 40% reduction in phosphorus pollution in four years. 

How about the federal level? 

The EPA has published a list of possible solutions to combat HABs, though none have been officially endorsed by the agency. Two chemical methods the EPA proposes include using aluminum compounds or barley straw combined with another inhibitor chemical that will slow or prevent algae growth. Other methods include physical measures to circulate and aerate the waters in order to prohibit growth, as well as introducing other vegetation to compete with and minimize the potential for HABs to flourish. 

From a specific political level, freshman Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) introduced a bill in March for the federal government to continue monitoring HABs. Rep. Donalds represents a community affected by this phenomenon, according to WINK-TV

Are there any other suggestions to fix this, and what can the average person do? 

Aside from making your concerns known with elected officials who represent areas affected by HABs and advocating for the aforementioned solutions, everyday people can limit their individual contributions to HAB growth. 

Landowners and volunteers could plant shade-providing trees and shrubbery, as the EPA says shade can prevent photosynthetic activity for algal growth. Finally, reducing one’s individual carbon footprint that contributes to anthropogenic climate change is another major step someone can take in order to combat HABs. Some simple steps would include reducing power and heat usage as well as generally reducing consumption. 

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