Algae blooms in the Great Lakes, as seen from space.
Algae blooms in the Great Lakes, as seen from space.

Not all algae producedomoic acid, the toxin that Nitzschia pungens specializes in. But too much of any algae species kills in another way: by robbing water of oxygen.

Algae are tiny organisms that thrive on warm water, lots of light, and nitrogen and phosphorus.  When they die, their decomposition consumes dissolved oxygen. When enough of them die, oxygen drops to less than two to three parts per million (ppm) – too low for even fish to survive. The result is a dead zone, a condition known as hypoxia.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the U.S. loses at least $82 million in revenue every year from fish kills and human illness caused by “harmful algal blooms” (HABs).

In 1998, the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act committed $52 million to combating this phenomenon. Reauthorized several times since then, the law’s gradually broadened in scope beyond what’s up with the initial problem area: the Gulf of Mexico. Bit by bit, Washington is moving from studying the issue to actually doing something about it.

Signed recently by President Obama, the newest version addresses all waters, not just saltwater coastal areas; including freshwater lakes, rivers, estuaries (including tributaries), and reservoirs. It also gives the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) almost $21 million to develop a plan – with an implementation timeline – for mitigating algae nationwide.

This means NOAA has to with not just the obvious stakeholders – state water management and watershed officials – but with local and regional agencies as well.

The law was co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose constituents are battling Lake Erie’s algae blooms and who’s since been named Vice-Chair of the Senate’s Great Lakes Task Force. According to news reports, Toledo’s spent $3 million to protect the city's water supply; Columbus spent $723,000 to address an outbreak at the Hoover Reservoir. This photo shows algae growth in the Great Lakes.

Does your agency struggle with algae blooms? If so, do you think this expansion of the law will provide some relief? In what ways? E-mail me at [email protected].