A two-day water ban affecting more than 400,000 people in and around Toledo, Ohio was lifted on Monday, after state officials determined that a dangerous toxin in the water had dissipated. That toxin was called microcystin, and was created by a swift, massive increase in cyanobacteria — commonly known as blue-green algae.
But the toxic algal bloom that poisoned Ohio’s water is not just Ohio’s problem. The EPA defines these blooms as a “major environmental problem” in all 50 states. The last EPA National Lakes Assessment noted that out of more than 123,000 lakes greater than 10 acres in size spread across the U.S., at least one-third may contain the toxic algae. And consuming microcystis can be deadly — it has been known to kill dogs and livestock, and can cause abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms in humans.
Two of the biggest reasons for the severity of algal blooms are phosphorus and nitrogen — excess runoff of which largely comes from urban and industrial agricultural land runoff. But another reason is climate change, as the toxic bacteria thrive in warm, nutrient-rich waters. And as climate change fuels more heavy rainfall events, sewer systems are likely to be more quickly overwhelmed, leading to the release of bacteria- and pathogen-rich sewage into waterways across the country.
Aside from Lake Erie, here are five other major U.S. water systems that are currently at risk from toxic algae blooms.
Lake Okeechobee, Florida
As the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida and second-largest freshwater lake in the country, Lake Okeechobee provides drinking water to West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, and the entire Lower East Coast metropolitan area. It also has a toxic algae problem.
“People were experiencing rashes and sicknesses like flu and lung infections — all from the breakdown of the algae,” Florida Oceanographic Society spokesperson Meghan Roberts told WFSU.
As climate change fuels more torrential rainfall and hotter weather, Florida may likely see more blooms of toxic algae in its freshwater systems. But urban and agricultural runoff are big problems that could be tackled immediately, according to Hans Paerl, the Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Lake Okeechobee has a dual nutrient problem,” said Paerl, who has done extensive research on the cause and solutions to toxic blue-green algae blooms “Folks down there have pretty much determined that unless they start removing both phosphorus and nitrogen from the lake, it’s going to take a long time to fix.”
Klamath River, California
The Klamath is the second largest river in California, flowing 263 miles through Oregon and draining into the Pacific Ocean. Its reservoirs provide drinking water to multiple tribal communities; it supports whitewater rafting, kayaking, and other recreational businesses; and is one of the most important rivers for anadromous fish migration.
“The Klamath has seen some very serious microcystin blooms, the same organisms as in Erie,” Paerl said. “EPA have been measuring very high levels there.”
Much of the algae contamination in the Klamath has been traced to the power company PacifiCorp, which has hydroelectric dams that “provide optimal growth conditions for the toxic algae by trapping nutrient rich water in shallow warm reservoirs,” according to the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. The Coalition notes that, in addition to health and environmental issues, the algae contamination threatens the religious practices of the Klamath’s native Karuk Tribe, who use the river for bathing ceremonies.
Jordan Lake, North Carolina
Paerl also noted that toxic algal blooms are happening in Jordan Lake, which is popular source of recreation in North Carolina. According to the group Wake Up Wake County, the lake and its watersheds are the primary sources of drinking water for nearly 300,000 people in five counties, and more than 1 million people use the lake for swimming, boating and fishing each year.
In the both the The Haw and Cape Fear Rivers, which flow downstream from Jordan Lake, UNC-Wilmington researchers have found toxic cyanobacteria at more than 300 times the levels considered safe by the World Health Organization. The cause of the blooms is, as expected, polluted runoff containing high amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen.
The problem only stands to get worse as the state government continues to put off plans to clean up and restore the lake. Indeed, last summer North Carolina’s general assembly voted to delay cleanup and restoration of Jordan Lake by an additional three years.
Cheney Reservoir, Kansas
Currently in Kansas, there are seven lakes that have blue-green algae warnings. The Cheney Reservoir, widely considered one of the best sailing lakes in the country, is just one of them.
But the Cheney Reservoir’s contamination has spanned years, and has been particularly bad. In 2011, contact with the algae there made 13 people ill and killed five dogs, according to The Wichita Eagle. It prevented tourists and residents from visiting the lake, hurting the lake’s surrounding businesses.
“It was just like a ghost town out here, and our worst financial year ever,” Tammera Snyder, of Snyder’s Marina at Cheney Reservoir, told the Eagle. “It was super-hot, but with the algae, (campers and boaters) couldn’t get into the water.”
“The genie is out of the bottle and never going back,” Kansas Bureau of Environmental Health director Tom Langer said of the annual toxic blooms. “We’re just trying to prepare for it and be able to manage it, no matter what happens.”
Sodus Bay, New York
Lake Erie isn’t the only Great Lake with toxic algal blooms. Sodus Bay, one of the more beautiful destination ports on Lake Ontario, also has a recurring toxic bacteria problem, impeding fishing, sailing, swimming, and other recreational activities in western New York.
But interestingly enough, Sodus Bay is also becoming one of the more prominent places for research of the toxic bacteria, according to a Democrat and Chronicle report. Using a three-year, $400,000 grant from the EPA, scientists there are seeing whether they can use hydrogen peroxide to treat the hazardous blue green algae blooms.
“Sodus Bay is becoming known as one of the premier test sites if you’re working with blue-green algae,” Gregory Boyer, an algae expert leading the peroxide research, told the Chronicle. “There’s so much going on on the bay this summer that it’s going to be ridiculous to try to keep track of it.”