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Communication Challenges 1: Harmful Algal Blooms

2012 August 21

By Jessica Werber

At EPA, there is a lot of discussion about connecting the dots. How do you help people go from A to B to a desired conclusion? When it comes to communicating the importance of harmful algal blooms, helping the public make connections between the health of their water bodies and their own health is a formidable challenge.

Algal blooms are confusing because they are simply the result of “too much of a good thing.” A little bit of algae is actually good for a water body, but too much becomes harmful.

Let’s say a landowner applies excess fertilizer on his or her land, or applies it at the wrong time. Then it rains and nitrogen in the fertilizer trickles into a nearby stream. That stream also receives nitrogen from stormwater, wastewater, and other sources like pet waste, and it becomes saturated. Algae feeding on the nitrogen proliferate, blocking the sunlight, depleting oxygen in the water, causing bacteria and…Well, the visual result is green goop, or surface scum on the water, which is pretty common in many states around America:

After the algal bloom subsides, the waterbody may still be overloaded with nitrogen. Certain types of algae, such as blue-green algae, create toxins that can make people and animals sick. When popular lakes and ponds are covered with scum, the local economy loses out because tourists will be unable to play or fish in the water.

The reality is that most people don’t think about water pollution in their everyday lives. Do I think that people care about their water? Yes, but they do so in different ways. Some care because they place an inherent value in the natural world. Others care because they have a vested interest; their child or pet is getting sick or their business is affected by the pollution. To successfully explain why harmful algal blooms are so detrimental, it is increasingly important for EPA to investigate the motivations behind why certain people care, to adapt our messaging and outreach efforts accordingly, and to clearly connect the dots in our own minds before we reach out to the public.

EPA’s new nutrient pollution website contains local stories about nutrient pollution and suggested actions you can take. So tell me…why do you care about harmful algal blooms and what can you do to make a difference?

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney. This post does not represent the views of the EPA or Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Todd Himelberger permalink
    August 21, 2012

    The problem is it is assumed by the EPA that fertiilizer will be applied improperly and therefore must be banned. In lawns when fertilizer is properly applied by professionals it does not run off. Turfgrass is natures best water filter. Turfgrass needs fertiilizer to grow properly. It has been proven at Penn State and The Univeristy of Florida that turfgrass does not let fertilizer runoff. Turfgrass also acts as a natural air conditioner for the atmosphere. So preventing the use of fertilizer by professionals actually does more harm, than properly fertilized and healthy turgrass. Please quit trying to build false environmental cases to take away our liberty!

  2. Lenora Tooher permalink
    August 21, 2012

    Just look at the pictures of the Mississippi River (drought effect) from the WSJ Weekend I read this past weekend on my flight to DC for interviews. Water DOES have more power than most people think. Water moves where it wants and a blades of grass can’t completely stop it from runoff. I currently live off a bankrupted golf course. To me, the nature setting is nicer now than what it must have looked like with golf carts. The heron, eagles, hawks and many other animals and insects appear to love their ‘new’ home. The bees and butterflies float beautifully across the ‘links’ now no longer present for human enjoyment. The USEPA makes sure that human life is protected to the best of its ability. I am grateful America is concerned with our environment. Imagine living where there is no USEPA. I dare not think of it. :-)

  3. sam permalink
    September 7, 2012

    thanks this

  4. John permalink
    May 3, 2013

    Thanks for the useful infos.

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