Harmful algae: Creature from the blecch lagoon
It’s swimming hole, river float and dog beach season! Do you know how to spot algae that can make you sick and can be deadly to dogs?
The creature from the blecch lagoon is not very big—but it’s ugly and scary. You’ll know the monster by its foamy, scummy or thick appearance on the surface of water, turning the water pea-green or brown-green. It’s a harmful algae bloom.
There have been a couple of documented sightings in Oregon already in the summer of 2016. But just because nobody has reported the algae doesn’t mean the scum you see in the water is friendly. A recent article in the Bend Bulletin points out that Oregon’s system of monitoring is “haphazard.” An encounter with a harmful algae bloom can make you, and your pets, very sick.
And what’s turning this algae into a monster? It’s being fed by nitrogen pollution, and made worse by climate change.
It’s not that nitrogen is a bad thing—in fact, it makes up 78% of our air. It makes plants grow and develop chlorophyll. Humans need nitrogen in our food to develop muscle, skin, hair, blood and even DNA.
Nitrogen only becomes a problem when it gets out of balance—and today, it’s out of balance. By some estimates, human activities like using chemical fertilizers, burning fossil fuels, growing food animals and managing waste have doubled the amount of nitrogen that can be accessed by living things.
Some people say that re-balancing our nitrogen cycle is the second biggest challenge–up there with balancing our carbon cycle—in stabilizing our climate. See far more about the nitrogen cycle from the UN Environment Program.
The good news: Oregonians are finding ways, big and small, to practice better balance.
Farmers are working upstream by being more precise about fertilizer use; see an example in a short video from the climate friendly nurseries project. Wastewater managers are working downstream to capture nitrogen pollution from water; check out how Clean Water Services is turning this waste and pollution into healthy fertilizer.
Individual Oregonians can do a lot to help, too. Bagging pet waste and throwing it in the trash, using the right fertilizer in the right amount at the right time, and planting rain gardens are all ways you can keep nitrogen out of the water.
Oregon may have some water quality challenges, but we also have more wild & scenic rivers than most states! So get out there and swim, float, kayak or otherwise love your river—and keep an eye out for those algae monsters.