How do we handle algae?
The water crisis in Salem this month is a wake-up call for the public and news media about the growing threat of harmful algae blooms in Oregon.
Officials want to know what caused the bloom to be so toxic. Salem residents want to know why they weren’t informed earlier. And we are all wondering how we can prevent these events from happening more frequently in the future – especially as Oregon Health Authority identified 41 water systems across the state at risk for similar events.
What causes algae growth?
Algae naturally exists in our rivers and lakes, but big algae blooms are a sign that the system is out of balance. One type of algae, technically Cyanobacteria, can be harmful to people and pets as it releases toxins into the water. Harmful algae events are becoming more common, partly because of hotter, drier spring months and a shift from cold, snow-fed systems to warmer rain-fed systems as weather patterns shift and our annual snowpack continues to decline.
But there are other factors fueling algae growth as well.
Harmful algae blooms are caused by the perfect storm of warm, slow moving water and nutrient pollution – i.e. too much nitrogen and phosphorous from soil erosion, common fertilizers, manure and other sources flowing or leaking into our waterways. Once algae takes hold in a water body, it frequently reappears year after year.
At Detroit Reservoir, officials are pointing to last year’s wildfires as a potential culprit fueling the current outbreak. We wrote about how wildfires affect our water supply back in November.
This isn’t a new problem, but it is a growing one.
The 2017 Oregon Climate Assessment Report says that climate change may lead to more toxic algae events in Oregon, and Oregon Health Authority specifically calls out the likely rise of harmful algal blooms as threatening our access to clean water in its 2017 Climate and Health Resilience Plan. The same OHA plan also notes that Oregon’s public health systems are not currently equipped to handle the complex and emerging environmental risks that climate change will exacerbate in Oregon.
Toxins released by cyanobacteria are no joke. Last summer, three people fell ill from ingesting toxic algae at Lake Billy Chinook, and 32 cows died in Southern Oregon from drinking water in a reservoir with a harmful algae bloom. Exposure can result in a range of health issues from rashes to neurological and reproductive problems. And fish and other aquatic life can die from toxic exposure, or be affected by the changes in pH levels and reductions in oxygen that the blooms also cause.
Planning for the future
As we look ahead, we need our government agencies and partners in public health to recognize environmental policy as health policy. Environmental protection is public health protection, and we need public health departments to become experts on environmental health so that they are equipped to weigh in on and support these efforts.
We need to our state agencies to work together – across the aisle between health and natural resources – to develop integrated strategies for harmful algal blooms that effectively inform the public about health concerns statewide, identify trends and hot spots, and work with local resiliency planning efforts.
And we need to invest in healthy watershed infrastructure that is resilient to climate change impacts and keeps harmful nutrients out of waterways. That means:
- Managing working forests to minimize erosion due to fire or forestry practices;
- Updating aging wastewater infrastructure and leaking septic systems to prevent water pollution;
- And reducing agricultural and urban runoff by shifting practices and improving green infrastructure
These ideas are just beginning to be discussed, but what is clear is that inaction is not an option. We must invest in our health systems and water resources to protect Oregonians ways of life today and into the future.