More frequent toxic algae blooms more than an inconvenience

Toxic algae blooms have been putting a damper on local summer fun this year — closing popular swimming areas like Vancouver Lake and warning people to keep themselves and their pets away from the water in Camas’ Lacamas and Round lakes.

Public health officials lifted the warnings at the Camas lakes earlier this week, just in time for the Fourth of July holiday, but that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear.

These algae blooms — really just eruptions of cyanotoxins that can kill pets and cause some pretty severe harm to humans’ kidneys, livers or nervous systems — are happening more often and in places that used to seem immune to such outbreaks.

Scientists have pointed to climate change as a contributing factor, stating that droughts, warmer lake waters and even torrential rainfall from changing weather patterns can all contribute to the increase in toxic algae blooms.

“We anticipate with warmer temperatures and longer summers … there is a greater chance that we’re going to see these organisms,” a Canadian cyanobacteria researcher told Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Information Morning show journalists in 2018.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states climate change is likely to cause more frequent toxic algae blooms by changing rainfall patterns, leading to “periods of drought and intense storms … (which) can cause more nutrient runoff into water bodies, feeding more algal blooms;” contributing to higher carbon dioxide levels in the air and water, which toxic blue-green algae need to survive and thrive; and by causing water temperatures and salinity levels to rise in freshwater lakes, promoting more frequent blooms.

We are already starting to see the effects of climate change on our lakes and freshwater environments.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that has tracked toxic algae blooms in the United States since 2010, this year is showing the highest number of cases, with 107 reported outbreaks in 2019 versus 63 reported blooms by this point in the year in 2018.

And while many may see the blooms as an inconvenience, there is more at stake than just a few days of avoiding a refreshing dip in the lake.

Not only do these blooms wreck a weekend at the lake, they cost taxpayers money since public health officials must spend time monitoring, testing and reporting potential blooms; and more frequent outbreaks can have long-lasting economic impacts — especially on an area like Camas, which promotes its many recreational lakes and lake trails to residents and tourists alike and has seen an influx of high-end housing developments surrounding Lacamas Lake.

So what can we do to help this problem?

One of the main things is to help reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus — the two nutrients toxic blue-green algae need to survive — making their way into our waterways.

The EPA has several suggestions on its “Nutrient Pollution” site, including tips on applying fertilizers to lawns (don’t do it before rainy or windy days and avoid applying fertilizer close to waterways); planting native plants and trees that reduce the need for fertilizers; buying phosphate-free detergents, soaps and household cleaners; and always picking up and properly disposing your pet’s waste.

Clark County’s Clean Water Division, which reminds us “we all live in a watershed, so every time someone learns about ‘clean water habits’ and changes the way they do things, it helps improve our community’s surface water resources (like our creeks, streams and rivers),” has a number of tips on keeping Clark County area waterways free of pollution at clark.wa.gov/public-works/what-you-can-do-clean-water.

To learn more about toxic algae blooms, their causes and some potential solutions, visit the following sites:

EPA: epa.gov/nutrientpollution/what-you-can-do

National Institute of Environmental Health Institutes: niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/algal -blooms/index.cfm

National Ocean Service: oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/

Water Education Foundation: watereducation.org/aquapedia-background/algal-blooms

Center for Earth and Environmental Science at Indiana University: cees.iupui.edu/research/algal -toxicology/bloomfactors

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