Algal blooms

New Challenge: Put Technology to Work to Protect Drinking Water

You likely remember when, this past summer, half a million people who live in the Toledo, Ohio, area were told not to drink the water coming out of their taps for several days. A state of emergency was declared because of a harmful algal bloom, which released toxins into the water that could have made many people ill.

Algal blooms like the one near Toledo are partly caused by an excessive amount of nutrients in the water – specifically, nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients are essential for ecosystems, but too many of them in one place is bad news. Not only do harmful algal blooms pose huge risks for people’s health, they can also cause fish and other aquatic wildlife to die off.

Cleaning up drinking water after a harmful algal bloom can cost billions of dollars, and local economies can suffer. The U.S. tourism industry alone loses close to $1 billion each year when people choose not to fish, go boating or visit areas that have been affected. It’s one of our country’s biggest and most expensive environmental problems. It’s also a particularly tough one, since nutrients can travel from far upstream and in runoff, and collect in quieter waters like lakes or along coastlines. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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SPARROWs, Lakes, and Nutrients?

By Jeff Hollister

Dock extending into a lake with forested background.Based on the title above, you probably think I don’t know what I am talking about. I mean really, what do sparrows, lakes, and nutrients have in common? In this case, a lot. So much so, an inter-agency team of EPA researchers in Narragansett RI, and a colleague from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in New Hampshire have been working together to better understand how these three seemingly disparate concepts can be linked together. Some of the results of this work are outlined in a recent publication in the Open Access journal, PLos One

The sparrow I am referring to isn’t small and feathered, it is a model developed and refined by the USGS. Since the late 1990’s, USGS has been developing SPARROW models which have been widely used to understand and predict the total amount of nutrients (among other materials) that streams are exposed to over the long-term. This is known as “nutrient load.” The models are important because they provide a picture over a very large extent of where nutrients might be relatively high.

However, when it comes to lakes, SPARROW doesn’t directly provide the information we need. For our research on lakes, we need reasonable estimates of the quantity of nutrients in a given volume of water (i.e., nitrogen and phosphorus concentration), not long term nutrient load for the year. This is important, because the higher the nutrient concentrations at any given time, the greater the chance of triggering algal blooms—and more blooms mean a greater probability of toxins released by algae reaching unhealthy levels.

In order to better estimate the nutrient concentrations, we needed to use the SPARROW model for total load, but also account for the differences between load and concentration. Our solution: combining field data, data on lake volume and the SPARROW Model.

In our paper “Estimating Summer Nutrient Concentrations in Northeastern Lakes from SPARROW Load Predictions and Modeled Lake Depth and Volume,” recently published in PLoS One, we describe how we combined modeling information from SPARROW, summertime nutrient concentrations collected during EPA’s 2007 National Lakes Assessment, and estimated lake volume (see this and this for more).

The end result of this effort is better predictions, by an average of 18.7% and 19.0% for nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively.

What is the meaning of this in terms of our environment, and importantly, the potential human health impacts? If we are able to better predict concentrations of nutrients it will hopefully also improve our ability to know where and when we might expect to see harmful algal blooms, specifically harmful cyanobacterial algal blooms. Cyanobacteria have been associated with many human health issues, from gastro-intestinal problems, to skin rash, and even a hypothesized association with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (for example, see this). So, in short, better predictions of nutrients, will, in the long run, improve our understanding of cyanobacteria and hopefully reduce the public’s exposure to a potential threat to health.

About the author: Jeff Hollister, a co-author on the study outlined in this blog post, is a research ecologist with an interest in landscape ecology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the statistical language R, and open science. The focus of Jeff’s work is to develop computational and statistics tools to help with the cyanobacteria groups research efforts. Jeff is also an outspoken advocate for open science and open access among his colleagues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Raising Awareness About Harmful Algal Blooms Has Gone to the Dogs – Literally

By Patty Scott

If you’ve seen EPA’s water-specific Twitter feed or Facebook page lately, you may have noticed images of a stout little bulldog by the name of Odin or a video featuring an adorable labradoodle named Honey. These animal mascots are helping us raise awareness about harmful algal blooms, a serious, growing environmental and public health problem.

Harmful algal blooms, which thrive in nutrient-enriched waters, can make people and pets very sick. Excess nutrients from a variety of sources – agriculture, stormwater runoff, wastewater, fossil fuels, fertilizers, and household products – can lead to the explosive growth of algae in water. And certain species of algae – like blue-green algae or cyanobacteria – can release dangerous toxins. Dogs getting sick, or even dying, are often the first indicator when there’s been a harmful algal bloom.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been 38 dog fatalities between 2007-2011 related to harmful algal blooms. However, since there is no official record keeping, it’s difficult to know if the number is higher. Tragically, one 16-month-old black labrador named Axel died last month after swimming in the Middle Fork of the Willamette River in Oregon.

We’ve been using social media to help spread the word among pet owners. We’ve shared tweets, blogs, infographics and videos with a range of groups, who in turn are posting articles and retweeting our graphics and videos. You can help, too! Share this blog post with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.

We can all do our part; last month, I shared information with my own vet about Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, Maryland, where many dog owners take their pets. The lake now has warning signs posted about a cyanobacteria outbreak. As the owner of two beautiful yellow labs, I want to alert others to the hidden dangers at the lake that could be fatal to our furry friends.

You can help keep your waterbody safe by cutting back on your nutrient footprint. Help reduce nutrient pollution by properly using fertilizers, using phosphate-free detergents, soaps, and household cleaners, and picking up your pet’s waste. To learn more, tune in to our harmful algal bloom webcast series, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to check out our new public service announcements featuring Honey, now on the EPA YouTube channel! Finally, submit any images of algal blooms you spot on our State of the Environment Flickr page.

About the author: Patty Scott works in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds on communications and outreach.  She loves fishing, kayaking, cycling and other outdoor pursuits.

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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Around the Water Cooler: HICO and H20

By Dustin Renwick

Even without a call from President Kennedy, outer space has enthralled America again. With the Mars rover, the inauguration of the commercial space industry, and a human diving from space unencumbered by vehicles, space is back in the public discussion.

EPA’s link to space exploration comes from the other final frontier: our oceans.

Blake Schaeffer, an EPA research ecologist, led a group that explored the use of space-based technology to monitor coastal waters as part of the EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects.

The team used the Naval Research Laboratory’s Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO), mounted on the International Space Station.

Satellite sensors are typically designed for darker depths in the open ocean; light reflected from land prevents accurate measurements in waters close to shore. HICO was calibrated for coastal waters, but the EPA has never used remote satellite monitoring to measure water quality.

“We wanted to show something like this was possible,” Schaeffer said.

Images from HICO reveal a spectrum that EPA scientists analyze to determine water quality factors such as concentrations of chlorophyll and organic matter.

The difference of effort between current boat-based surveys and remote sensing via outer space is akin to creating fabric. A factory of people armed with knitting needles could weave cloth, but operating a loom could produce better results in less time and with fewer people.

Today’s monitoring strategies involve field observations that pinpoint tiny areas out of the thousands of beaches, inlets, and estuaries carving the U.S. coastline. Similar to the efficiency of a loom, HICO operations allow scientists to monitor larger swaths of water and conduct research previously limited by time, personnel or geographic constraints.

“We’re seeing right up into where freshwater streams and rivers meet the headwaters of estuaries, and that’s great,” said team member Darryl Keith, an EPA research oceanographer.

Keith said scientists have models to estimate water quality in freshwater and saltwater environments, but “few models cross the interface between these environments.”  HICO helps integrate the two.

Team researchers are also developing a smartphone application that will make their data accessible to the general public.

The project was based in Florida, but an ideal future could bring national water quality forecasts similar to today’s weather reports. If an algal bloom closes your favorite swim spot, you’ll have the information before you leave for the beach.

About the author:  Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Communication Challenges 1: Harmful Algal Blooms

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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Science Wednesday: Nitrogen, Think About It

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Sarah Blau

Let’s just take a moment to think about nitrogen. Symbol: N. Atomic number: 7. Atomic mass: 14u. But unless you’re a chemist this doesn’t mean too much…

So let’s think about other aspects of nitrogen. Nitrogen is in the air we breathe, it is in the food we eat, it is a part of the necessary nutrients needed for life. Plants need nitrogen. Animals need nitrogen. We need nitrogen.

But, as is often the case, too much of a good thing is NOT a good thing. Nitrogen exists naturally in the environment, but human energy and food production have led to increased nitrogen levels in the air, land, and water. This excess of nitrogen in our natural resources contributes to many adverse impacts from decreased visibility in the air, to acid rain falling on land, to harmful algal blooms in water bodies, and more.

Nervous yet?

Luckily, EPA researchers take more than a moment of the day to think about nitrogen. They think about sources of nitrogen, the movement of nitrogen in the environment, the chemical changes of nitrogen, and the environmental and public health effects of nitrogen.

EPA scientists and partners in Iowa are testing newly created wetlands as treatment systems for lowering sediment and nitrogen pollution in surface waters draining into the Mississippi River.

In Narragansett, Rhode Island, EPA scientists are investigating how nitrogen from different sources interacts with other pollutants and affects lakes and reservoirs. Results will be used to develop computational tools for more informed nutrient management decisions.

Yet another EPA study focuses on the northern Gulf of Mexico, a.k.a. “The Dead Zone” where excess levels of nitrogen have had severe effects on the coastal ecosystem. Scientists are developing cutting-edge, 3D water flow and water quality models of the northern Gulf in order to inform decision-making about how potential nutrient management and climate change scenarios will affect the Gulf’s Dead Zone and the rivers and streams that feed into it.

EPA’s nitrogen research is ongoing at these and many other locations across the country to answer the overarching question: “How do we protect and sustain ecosystems and protect public health while also providing the material, food, and energy required by society?”

It’s a good question and a hard one to answer. So let’s be glad that EPA scientists know their chemistry.

About the author:  Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication Team.

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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