harmful algal blooms

Tracking Blooms from the Sky

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Image of a map created with the new app.

Water quality managers can drop location pins in their water bodies of interest and the pins change colors depending on user settings.

With help from partners, EPA is going above and beyond the agency’s traditional methods of monitoring harmful algal blooms in water. EPA has joined NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to use satellite data to monitor algal blooms and develop an early warning indicator system for toxic and nuisance blooms.

Algal blooms have caused extensive problems in lakes worldwide. We saw this in August, 2014 when half a million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio were issued a water advisory alerting them to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water after a harmful algal bloom of cyanobateria in Lake Erie had produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin.

Blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts than ever before. The estimated annual cost of U.S. freshwater degraded by harmful algal blooms is $64 million in additional drinking water treatment, loss of recreational water usage, and decline in waterfront real estate values.

The new multi-agency effort will build on previous NASA ocean satellite sensor technologies created to study the global ocean’s microscopic algal communities. EPA researchers will provide the science that links the current and historical satellite data on cyanobacteria algal blooms provided by NASA, NOAA, and USGS to monitor changes in the environment, assess economic impacts, and protect human health.

The first step in the five-year project will be creating a reliable, standard method for identifying cyanobacteria blooms in U.S. freshwater lakes and reservoirs using ocean color satellite data. NOAA and NASA have lead the way in using oceanic satellite data for monitoring and forecasting harmful algal blooms and EPA is integrating this data into the decision-making process.

Researchers will also conduct a large-scale investigation of potential causes of harmful algal blooms in U.S. freshwater systems. Blooms in lakes and estuaries result from aquatic plants receiving a combination of excess nutrients, perhaps from river runoff, and other environmental conditions such as temperature and light. Various land uses, such as urbanization or modernized agricultural practices, influence the amount of sediment and nutrients delivered in watersheds, which can influence cyanobacterial growth.

This innovative use of satellite data to monitor and report blooms throughout a region or state will help with management of events and significantly reduce risk to the public. Ultimately, this project will reduce the amount of resources needed to protect human health and the environment.

About the Author: Science writer and student contractor Kacey Fitzpatrick is a frequent contributor to It All Starts with Science.



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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New Model for Mississippi Nutrient Pollution

By Marguerite Huber

Landsat image of the mouth of the Mississippi River

Landsat image of the mouth of the Mississippi River. (NASA Image by Robert Simmon, based on Landsat data provided by the UMD Global Land Cover Facility.)

EPA scientists are tackling one of the nation’s biggest water quality challenges, and I mean in physical size and importance: nutrient pollution flowing from the Mississippi River watershed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientific assessments have concluded that the nutrients from the Mississippi River watershed are the primary cause of the dramatic drop in oxygen levels (“hypoxia”) sparking the Gulf of Mexico’s summer time “dead zone.”

EPA researchers have built the Coastal General Ecosystem Model (CGEM) to help address that challenge.

Mississippi watershed (image courtesy of NASA)

Mississippi watershed (image courtesy of NASA)

The state-of-the-art Coastal General Ecosystem Model provides a wealth of important information to scientists and stakeholders seeking to better understand the dynamics of nutrient pollution in the Gulf. The model receives nitrogen and phosphorus data collected from the Mississippi River and then predicts how these nutrients trigger eutrophication and hypoxia.

Armed with that information, researchers and others can predict the impacts of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus on water quality in the Gulf, including estimating how much nitrogen and phosphorus reduction would be needed to achieve the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force’s goal of reducing the size of the hypoxic area from its current average size of 15,000 km2 down to 5,000 km2.

John Lehrter, research ecologist developing and working with CGEM notes, “Knowing that the goal is 5,000 km2, we can adjust the nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the model to estimate a range of reductions required to achieve the goal. Water quality managers and policy makers can then use this and other information to determine how to achieve these reductions.”

Additionally, a team of federal and academic scientists are using the model in the Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed. The Testbed aims to increase the accuracy and reliability of coastal and ocean forecasting products.

Overall, the model will help the states in the Mississippi River Basin demonstrate to stakeholders the link between nutrient loading and water quality impairment in the Gulf and show how nutrient reductions result in water quality improvement.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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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New Challenge: Put Technology to Work to Protect Drinking Water

The following excerpt is reposted from “EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership

By Ellen Gilinksy

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 waternutrient-sensor## – 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.

That’s why a group of federal agencies and private partners – including our Office of Research and Development and our Office of Water – are announcing the Nutrient Sensor Challenge. The challenge will help accelerate the development of sensors that can be deployed in the environment to measure nutrients in our country’s waterways. Its goal is to have new, affordable sensors up and running by 2017.

At EPA we run an innovative research program on nutrients management, at sites that range from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay. We’ve also been working with new technologies that can give us better information on nutrient pollution, including satellites and portable remote sensors.

Read the rest of the post.

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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Helping Communities and Water Utilities Address Harmful Algal Blooms

By Darren Lytle, Heath Mash, and Nick Dugan

Satellite image of west end of Lake Erie showing algal bloom.

Algal bloom in the west end of Lake Erie, August 3, 2014. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

Toxins from harmful algal and cyanobacterial blooms are increasingly contaminating many of our nation’s source waters. We saw this just recently in Toledo, Ohio where toxins, most likely microcystins, made their way through the water treatment facility leaving many people without drinking water.

Many of the drinking water treatment facilities in the Great Lakes region were built before World War II and were designed to filter out particles of a certain size. As a result, removing the much smaller cyanobacterial toxins, such as microcystins, at these facilities can be difficult and expensive. Our research is helping communities confront this challenge.

Close up of hand filling a glass with tap water.

EPA researchers are helping to protect drinking water sources.

For example, recognizing the potential health and economic consequences of disruptions to municipal water supplies, we have partnered with Ohio EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct studies aimed at helping water treatment facilities cope with water quality changes in their water sources, and to optimize treatment to reduce risks associated with harmful algal blooms, also known for the acronym “HABs.”

Preliminary surveys of full-scale treatment facilities have shown that the size of the contaminant is key to the problems it can cause. Cyanobacteria cells are large enough for existing treatment facilities to remove by filters and other methods, as long as the cells remain intact. However, toxins leaking out of damaged or dying cyanobacteria cells can be difficult for existing facilities to treat without expensive additional actions or modifications.

To address this, we are looking for ways to improve the performance of existing drinking water treatment facility operations. Our researchers are looking at how to modify certain treatment operations such as where in the process treatment chemicals are applied, the types and concentrations of chemicals used for treatment and the pH levels at which the processes are operated. We are also conducting research on ways to improve sampling and analysis to more effectively monitor and control cyanobacteria and their toxins, including microcystins.

Harmful algal blooms aren’t just a major concern for drinking water. Fish, birds, and other animals can come in contact with or ingest these toxins, and suffer adverse effects. There have even been incidences of pet and livestock fatalities from drinking water contaminated with algal toxins.

Blooms can also affect recreational activities. For example, people swimming, waterskiing, or fishing in contaminated water can be exposed to algal toxins.

Some of our colleagues are working to better define the environmental factors controlling the development, persistence, and toxin production related to harmful algal blooms. Collaborative research efforts are focusing on controlling nutrient runoff, remote sensing and monitoring of such blooms, as well as developing early warning systems that would alert recreationists and drinking water treatment plant operators alike to their presence and the potential of toxin formation, to help eliminate exposure risk. Other researchers are exploring the human health effects related to microcystin exposures, with an eye toward developing a health advisory in the near future.

Our goal is to develop tools and methods that communities can use to manage potential impacts of harmful algal blooms. We want to ensure our water is clean for generations to come and protect the environment and the health of people, pets, and livestock across the country.

Learn more about EPA’s research on Harmful Algal Blooms and Cyanobacteria.

For more information on harmful algal blooms and our research, please share your questions in the Comment section below, or contact us directly at sswr@epa.gov.

About the Authors

Darren Lytle is an environmental engineer who focuses his research on drinking water contaminants and treatment technologies. He investigates corrosion control and water quality; lead and copper corrosion control; and filtration with an emphasis on removal of microbial pathogens.

Heath Mash is a chemist who studies the efficacy of hormone-like contaminant removal during water treatment, the occurrence and treatability of harmful algal bloom toxins, and identification of disinfection byproducts from hormones and algal bloom toxins material during treatment.

Nick Dugan is an environmental engineer currently focused on bench-scale trials evaluating the impact of common drinking water treatment oxidants on intact, toxin-producing cyanobacterial cells over a range of water quality conditions.

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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Modeling Cyanobacteria Ecology to Keep Harmful Algal Blooms at Bay

By: Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead

Sign on beach warning of harmful algal bloom

U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

Despite a lengthy history of research on cyanobacteria, many important questions about this diverse group of aquatic, photosynthetic “blue-green algae” remain unanswered.  For example, how can we more accurately predict cyanobacteria blooms in freshwater systems?  Which lakes have elevated risks for such blooms?  And what characteristics mark areas with high risks for cyanobacteria blooms?

These are important questions, and our ecological modeling work is moving us closer to finding some answers.

The gold standard for understanding cyanobacteria in lakes is direct measurements of certain water quality variables, such as levels of nutrients, chlorophyll a, and pigments.  This of course requires the ability to take on site (“in situ”) samples, something that is not possible to do for every lake in the country.  Our modeling work is focused on predicting cyanobacterial bloom risk for lakes that have not been directly sampled.

We are using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) data to model bloom risk for all lakes in the continental United States.  The work is also starting to shed light on some of the landscape factors that may contribute to elevated predicted bloom risk.  For example, we know that different regions have different predictive risk.   We are also learning about how lake depth and volume, as well as the surrounding land use impact cyanobacteria abundance.

In addition to our national modeling efforts, we are collaborating with others on smaller scale and more focused studies at regional and local scales.  First, we are partnering with other EPA researchers to develop time-series models using data gathered frequently and over a long time by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.  By using these data, we expect to tease apart information about annual timing and the intensity of blooms.  We can also explore aspects of seasonal variability and frequency. Lastly, we are starting to explore ways to use approximately 25 years of data collected by Rhode Island citizen science as part of the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program.  We hope to mine these data and uncover indicators of harmful algal bloom events.

With all this work, we and our partners are adding new chapters to the long history of cyanobacteria research in ways we hope will help communities better predict, reduce, and respond to harmful blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead are looking for ways to decrease the negative impacts of cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms on human health and the environment.

NOTE: Join Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead for a Twitter chat today (June 26) at 2:00pm (eastern time zone) using the hashtag #greenwater. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

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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Open Science and Cyanobacterial Research at EPA

By: Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie, and Bryan Milstead

Green, algal-filled pond

Algal bloom containing cyanobacteria.

It wasn’t long ago that science always occurred along a well-worn path. Observations led to hypotheses; hypotheses led to data collection; data led to analyses; and analyses led to publications. And along this path, data, hypotheses, and analyses were held close and, more often than not, the only public-facing view of the research was the final publication.

Science has come a long way with this model.  However, it was conceived when print was the main media and most scientific questions could be investigated by few scientists over a short period of time.

Then came computers. Then came the internet.

Just like in every other aspect of modern life, these advances are greatly impacting science. It has changed who conducts our science, how we share it, and how others interact with scientific information. All of these changes are playing out through the increasing openness of all parts of the scientific process.

This broad area has been defined as having several components. These components suggest that “open science”:

  • is transparent (and, of course, open)
  • includes all parts of research (data, code, etc.)
  • allows others to repeat the work
  • should be posted on an open and accessible website (while protecting Personally Identifiable Information, etc.)
  • occurs along a gradient (i.e. not just a binary open vs. not open)

At EPA, we are learning how to make our research on cyanobacteria and human health (for more info join our webinar) meet those criteria.  We are implementing open science in three ways: (1) making our work available via open access publishing; (2) providing access to the code used in our analysis; and (3) making our data openly available.

Several members of our research group have embraced open access options for publishing their research. For instance, our colleague Elizabeth Hilborn and her co-authors published results of their study—examining a group of dialysis patients following exposure to the cyanobacteria toxin microcystin—in one of the pioneering open access journals, PLoS ONE. Also in PLoS ONE, EPA scientist Bryan Milstead and his collaborators published a modeling method to combine the U.S. Geological Survey’s SPARROW model (a modeling tool for interpreting regional water-quality monitoring data), lake depth, lake volume, and EPA National Lakes Assessment data to estimate nutrient concentrations.

As our work progresses, we will continue to choose open access journals. In our experience, this has allowed our research to reach a larger audience and we can more easily track the impact through readership levels using available tools such as PLoS Article Level Metrics.

We are also sharing our data. Currently, this is accomplished through supplements added to publications and through sites such as the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway. We plan to expand these efforts via data publications, version-controlled repositories, and through the development of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that provide access to data for developers and other scientists.

The goal of these efforts, and more (stay tuned for a future post on how coding fits in to open science), is to increase the reproducibility of our work (but challenges remain), reach broader audiences, and eventually have a greater impact on our understanding and management of harmful algal blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie and Bryan Milstead study greenwater for a living. If you have questions for them, join the webinar on June 25th or follow the twitter chat on June 26th using #greenwater.

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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