Keeping our water safe from toxic algae

By Nathan Murphy
State Director

As Michiganders head to our world class Great Lakes beaches and inland lakes to take advantage of Labor Day Weekend and enjoy that last bit of summer, we can be thankful that we are not facing a situation like Florida, where toxic algae has killed manatees and turtles, and even sent 15 people to the emergency room.

However, algal blooms continue to be a problem in waters around Michigan. In places as different as our Lake Michigan shoreline up through Grand Traverse Bay, Saginaw Bay, and inland lakes around the state our Department of Environmental Quality has catalogued excessive levels of algae.

Algal blooms are gross, and can also threaten the health of our families, our pets, and even wildlife. Blue-green algae, more accurately called cyanobacteria, can produce cyanotoxins like microcystin. Microcystin from algae blooms is what caused 500,000 people in Toledo to have unsafe drinking water in 2014.

To be clear, cyanotoxins, the toxins in algal outbreaks do not belong in our drinking water or where we swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ingesting cyanotoxins can cause vomiting, diarrhea, neurological problems, abdominal pain, and liver and kidney damage.  Some studies have even linked a neurotoxin found in cyanobacteria to a deadly disease similar to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS. If that is not alarming enough, a top scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is finding even more deadly toxins in some algae -- including one described as “[n]early as poisonous as botulism.”

Unfortunately, are now seeing hundreds of algal outbreaks in waters across the country. With more pollution flowing, and climate change bringing hotter weather, algal outbreaks are getting worse across the country.  A recent scientific study finds that toxic algal outbreaks could triple by 2050.

In most cases, the main cause of algal outbreaks is runoff pollution containing phosphorus that fuels algal blooms.

Here in Michigan, there are a number of sources of these nutrients including stormwater runoff/sewage overflows, some agricultural practices like improper surface application of manure, and even things like improper use of lawn fertilizer and not picking up after your dog. If we don't want toxic algae in our lakes and rivers, we need to stop feeding it.

Farms can take a number of simple steps to reduce pollution right now. Runoff-reduction measures such as buffer zones and cover crops are cheap and easy ways to protect waterways from contamination.

Reducing stormwater runoff isn’t rocket-science. We need to absorb stormwater onsite instead of letting it run down the street and pollute nearby waters. We also need to repair aging infrastructure, from sewage treatment plants to septic systems, that leaks nutrients.

As we enjoy the last days of summer -- swimming at a beach or paddling down a river -- let’s urge our elected officials to roll up their sleeves and take action on algae. If we don’t act now, next summer, our waters -- and our future -- might be a cloudier than we would like.