Summer with a side of algae

Add Odell Lake and Ross Island to the list.

As summer heats up, harmful algae blooms are taking off across the state.

The Oregonian recently reported that three people fell ill from ingesting toxic algae at Lake Billy Chinook in July, and highlighted that the state’s monitoring system is made up of a hodge-podge of unfunded partners that can cover only a fraction of our public waterways.

The toxins released by blue-green algae blooms can be harmful to humans, even at low levels, with effects ranging from rashes to neurological and reproductive problems. Pets and animals are especially vulnerable: 32 cows died in one location this year from drinking water in a reservoir with a blue-green algae bloom. 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.

With more of Oregonians’ favorite summer swimming and boating spots developing a blue-green sludge, now is the time to be talking about why this is happening and what we can do to stop it.

We wrote about how to stay safe around algae earlier this month, but what is going on under the surface affects more than just summer fun. Although toxic algae is a challenging environmental and public health issue in itself, it’s also an indicator that other pollution and water quality problems exist in our lakes and rivers.

Harmful algae blooms – otherwise referred to as blue-green algae or cyanobacteria – are caused by the perfect storm of nutrient pollution – too much nitrogen and phosphorous from common fertilizers, manure and other sources flowing into waterways when it rains – and warm, slow moving water. Once it takes hold in a water body, it frequently reappears year after year.

But what can we do?

Many of the root causes of harmful algae blooms are human driven, and with the right direction, we can reduce their frequency and prevent them from taking hold in new bodies of water.

First we need to find ways to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution that is flowing into our waterways: 

  • Farmers and ranchers can use best management practices (page 3 of this PDF) to “right-size” fertilizer use.
  • Green infrastructure in cities, like rain gardens filled with native plants, help filter nutrients before they end up in waterways.
  • Reducing use of lawn fertilizers.

And second, we need to invest in strategies to cool our rivers and restore their natural, flowing functions:

Harmful algae blooms are affecting public health, ecosystems and economies in growing numbers across the country. OEC is working to reduce these impacts in Oregon by advocating for stronger water quality programs through Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, better funding for projects that restore riparian areas along streams, and state programs that reduce sources of pollution.

OEC’s water team will continue to track the algae problem as it grows throughout the state this summer and keep you informed of actions you can take to reduce water pollution in your local waterways.

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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 i
June 8, 2018, 3:11 pm


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.
June 30, 2016, 3:25 pm


3 Replies to "Summer with a side of algae"

  • satya vayu
    August 4, 2017 (1:45 am)

    One of the most effective long-term strategies to dealing with algae blooms, which you neglected to mention in your article, is to reduce or eliminate animal products in our diets. Much of the fertilizer run-off that creates the blooms is tied to animal agriculture – directly from their manure, and indirectly from fertilizer applied to fields to grow their feed (much more field acreage than those for growing plants for human feed). If we reduced the animal industry, we massively reduce the blooms (as well as massively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the antibiotic crisis, and human chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer). Why do you leave this powerful, effective, and far-reaching solution out of the discussion? Just because of social pressure because questioning diet is taboo? How long we will continue to be so cowardly as to refuse to mention the most important solutions?

  • Protecting clean water at home | Oregon Environmental Council
    August 21, 2018 (7:58 pm)

    […] in your street. These excess “nutrients” in the water are the cause of increasingly frequent toxic algae blooms, and they can harm fish and other aquatic life, and contaminate our drinking […]

  • Celebrating 45 Years of Clean Water | Oregon Environmental Council
    February 1, 2019 (6:29 pm)

    […] is temperature – our rivers are too warm, causing harm to endangered salmon and increasing toxic algae blooms. But thanks to the Clean Water Act, cities and businesses have gotten creative about how to meet […]