The Algae Is Coming, But Its Impact Is Felt Far From Water

Aug 11, 2013

Algae blooms are green or red or brown, slimy, smelly and you don't want it coming soon to a waterfront near you.

Most of us don't give a lot of thought to algae until the furry-like monstrosity is spreading over beaches, rivers, lakes and bays, but gigantic algae blooms have become an increasing problem around the world.

The danger algae blooms pose is that they sap the body of water where they are growing of nutrients and oxygen; they then die, decompose and rot.

"Fish can't live in there. This happens in coastal areas, it's happened in the Chesapeake Bay, [and] it's happened on a massive scale in the Gulf of Mexico," says NPR's food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles.

Part of proliferation of algae blooms is due to agricultural demands.

Booming Algae Bloom

Imagine for a moment you're in Eastern China, with temperatures in the upper 90s and extreme humidity making life in the city unbearable. So you head to the shore for a special weekend on the resort beaches of the Yellow Sea in the city of Qingdao.

But instead of refreshing blue waves, a carpet of what looks like green fur stretches across the sand and over the ocean as far as the eye can see. Piles of the green, algal slime are as much as 10 feet high. This area of China is home to some of the biggest algal blooms on the planet.

"In truth it dwarfs any other of the algal blooms that we deal with all over the world," says Don Anderson, the director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms and a senior scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The algae, Anderson tells NPR's Jacki Lyden, derives from seaweed farming, the edible kind that gets wrapped around sushi. The seaweed grows on underwater bamboo stands, but those grow nonedible algae, too. When farmers clean it off, it washes to shore; fertilizer runoff exacerbates this massively.

Green Scum

Closer to home, algae has plagued coastal Florida this summer, and blooms are predicted for the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie.

Oceanographer Richard Stumpf, with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently returned from a research station on Lake Erie. Stumpf is in charge of forecasting hazardous algal blooms, and expects to see a significant bloom this year.

"The bloom just started in the past week on the far western part of the lake," Stumpf tells NPR. "There was scum on the surface of the lake."

But Stumpf says this year will not be as bad as 2011, which saw a record-breaking bloom of blue-green algae stretching from Toledo to Cleveland.

"I talked to a charter boat captain, and he went out two years ago and for 10 [to] 15 miles he went through scum," he says. "You can say he lost customers."

Stumpf's goal with the algae forecast is not just to predict where the algae is, but where it is not, so that people in unaffected areas of the lake don't lose tourist revenue because the whole body of water has a bad reputation for algae.

It is a problem that has plagued Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio for years, an area some residents consider the "poster child for blue-green algae."

Residents like Milt Miller are well-acquainted with the algae. He and a group of residents have had enough with the persistent blooms and are trying to get rid of it.

"The lake touches every facet of our lives whether it be recreationally [or] employment wise," Miller says. "Real estate prices around the lake plummeted."

Miller also says that it is not just the people with lakefront property who are affected. Because of the summertime residency, everything from car washes to laundry mats to supermarkets and big box stores feel the pinch of a lack of tourists the algae blooms cause.

"So it's not limited to areas immediately adjacent to the lake, it literally impacts all every fragment of our whole society," he says.

Anderson agrees, and says that conservatively the algae blooms have about a $100 million a year impact on the U.S. — and that's just on the marine side of the picture.

"The freshwater estimates are in the billions, and a lot of that comes from the decrease in property value from water that looks just noxious and green and slimy," the scientist says. The algae can also produce toxins, Anderson says, that can kill fish and birds and even be harmful to humans.

Combating It At The Source

Some farmers are trying to reduce their impact by cutting off this problem at its source: the farm.

Agriculture is the central part of the story when it comes to algae blooms. As a species, we have to grow a lot of food to survive. To do this, we use a lot of fertilizer that has ingredients like nitrogen and phosphorous, which is very important for plant growth.

"The thing is, by fertilizing the planet, we end up fertilizing everything," says NPR's Charles.

That "everything" includes streams, lakes and oceans. That is what feeds the algae bloom.

Clagett Farm is a model farm owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. One of the things they do is try to educate farmers in the watershed about their impact on the Bay.

Michael Heller manages the Clagett Farm in Maryland, and he knows the dangers of nutrient runoff. He says solutions to water quality have to start a lot earlier in the agriculture process.

"I think this is the most important point we can make is that every part of the farm is important for runoff," Heller says. "Too often the focus is right at the streams, but it's what's happening up in the fields that's most critical."

Heller says that at poorly managed farms, livestock often endanger watersheds. Herds of cows erode the ground leading to soil runoff. That runoff gets mixed with nutrient-dense manure and fertilizer, which eventually makes its way to the Bay.

But at the Clagett Farm, nitrogen-absorbing legumes abound and cows are moved from pasture to pasture to maintain fresh fields. Fencing always keeps the animals away from the stream.

The fences are just the first layer of the filtering process on the farm. Past the electric fences is a road that acts as a grass buffer, and just off the road is a dense forest. The soil here is mostly organic matter that Heller says acts like a sponge.

"That's not going to allow any nutrients or water to run off," he says. "So by the time that droplet hits the stream, it has little or no sediment in it and very minimal or no nutrients in it, so that what we're sending down to the Bay is a positive thing."

Heller says the key is a holistic approach, and that's the way more and more farmers are starting to think.

"Does the system work? The cattle, the veggies, the hay, the pasture; do they all fit together in a system that works and protects water quality?"

The fight against algae doesn't start and end with the farmer, however. You can help too, says NPR's Charles, by holding off on fertilizing your lawn.

"A beautiful green grassy lawn is not natural, and you're probably putting more nutrients on there than it really needs," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Ten years ago this month, a tree fell on a power line in Ohio, and blacked out a huge chunk of the Northeastern United States. Later in the show, we'll take a look back at that event.

First, though, our cover story: algae. And not just algae, hazardous algal blooms. It's green or red or brown, it's slimy, it's smelly, and you don't want it coming soon to a waterfront near you.

Most of us don't give a lot of thought to algae until it's a monstrosity spreading over our beaches, rivers, lakes and bays. Gigantic algae blooms have become more and more of a problem around the world. So let's have a summer holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Imagine for a moment that we're in Eastern China with temps in the upper 90s and extreme humidity making life unbearable in the city. So we head to the shore for a special weekend at the resort beaches on the Yellow Sea in Qingdao.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: But instead of refreshing blue waves, a carpeted green fur stretches across the sand and over the ocean as far as the eye can see. This is the biggest algal bloom in the world.

DON ANDERSON: Piles that are three, four, five, 10 feet deep and can cover 100 square miles, it's hundreds of thousands of tons of this green algal slime. In truth, it dwarfs any other of the algal bloom problems that we deal with all over the world.

LYDEN: Don Anderson should know. He's the director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms. And he told us where this China bloom is coming from.

ANDERSON: This derives from an aquaculture effort. In other words, a sea farming effort in the Chinese coast where they grow Porphyra, which, for most people, that's the sort of the dark seaweed that's dried and you wrap your sushi in. It's an edible seaweed.

LYDEN: The seaweed grows on underwater bamboo stands, but those grow non-edible algae as well. So when farmers clean this all off, it washes to shore where fertilizer runoff exacerbates all of this massively. It is quite a sight, which you can check out on our website, npr.org.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Green scum is what it is, really.

LYDEN: Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. So why talk to him about algae?

CHARLES: Agriculture is the central part of this story. We, as a species, we have to grow food. And in order to grow a lot of it, we fertilize those fields. Nitrogen is the biggest, you know, fertilizer, also phosphorous. And the thing is by fertilizing the planet, we end up fertilizing everything.

LYDEN: Including streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.

CHARLES: What happens is the nutrients go into the water, they set off these algae blooms. Then the algae decompose. They die, they rot, and that is what soaks up all the oxygen in the water. And so you have an area which is deprived of oxygen, and it destroys fisheries. Fish can't live in there. This happens in coastal areas, it's happened in the Chesapeake Bay. It's happened on a massive scale in the Gulf of Mexico.

LYDEN: Closer to home, algae has plagued coastal Florida this summer, and big blooms are predicted for the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie.

RICHARD STUMPF: We unfortunately expect to see a significant bloom.

LYDEN: Richard Stumpf is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's in charge of forecasting hazardous algal blooms, and he just got back from a research station on an island in Lake Erie.

STUMPF: The bloom just started in the past week on the far western part of the lake. There was actually scum on the surface of the lake.

LYDEN: But Stumpf says this year won't be as bad as 2011, which saw a record-breaking bloom of blue-green algae stretching from Toledo all the way to Cleveland.

STUMPF: I talked to a charter boat captain, and he went out with his boat two years ago when Lake Erie had a horrible bloom. And for 10, 15 miles, he went through green scum. You can say he lost customers.

LYDEN: Stumpf's goal with algae forecasting isn't just to predict where the algae is, but where it is not, so that people in the unaffected areas of the lake won't lose precious tourist revenue. Bad reputations have a way of scaring away the tourists. Algae is a problem that has plagued Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio for years.

MILT MILLER: We were the poster child for blue-green algae.

LYDEN: Milt Miller is well-acquainted with algae. He and a group of residents have had enough with the persistent stuff and are trying to get rid of it.

MILLER: The lake touches every facet of our lives, whether it be recreationally, employment wise. Real estate prices around the lake plummeted.

LYDEN: Moreover, says Miller, it's not just people with lakefront property who are affected.

MILLER: Car washes, Laundromats, supermarkets, big box stores, TV stores. And because of that summertime residency, all those numbers are off. So it is not specifically related to areas immediately adjacent to the lake. It literally impacts every fragment of our whole society.

LYDEN: Don Anderson at the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms agrees.

ANDERSON: We very conservatively say this is about $100 million a year impact to the U.S., and that's just the marine side of the picture. The freshwater estimates are in the billions, and a lot of that comes from the decrease in property value from water that looks just noxious and green and slimy. But you can also have toxins produced by these algae. And those toxins can kill fish and sea birds and whales and make humans very sick, and even can kill humans.

LYDEN: For people who don't have waterfront property, though, or care much about going to the beach, should they care about algae blooms?

ANDERSON: That's one of our dilemmas is that for some part of the country, they don't see the impacts that others are feeling, even though they may actually be partly responsible. But at the same time, I think most people do appreciate that we have a country with these marine and freshwater resources that we need to protect.

LYDEN: And some farmers are reducing their impact. To see how they do that at the source, we went out to a model farm owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which educates farmers in the watershed about their impact on the bay. Farmer Michael Heller knows about the dangers of fertilizer runoff, and he showed us some of his efforts to reduce nutrients from going into the bay.

MICHAEL HELLER: We're just - we're about 18 miles from the White House, which is quite remarkable when you sit out here, and it's nothing but peace and quiet. And we're about 15 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.

LYDEN: Michael Heller manages the Clagett Farm in Maryland. We hopped in his dusty pickup truck and started up a gravel road.

HELLER: We are driving through the heart of the farm. And on the right, you'll see a lot of pastures.

LYDEN: At the edge of a rolling green field, about 20 cows were lolling about in the August heat in the shade of some old trees. We headed over there. Heller explained that this is where any solution to water quality issues must begin.

HELLER: And I think this is the most important point we can make is every part of the farm is important for runoff. Too often, the focus is right at the streams, but it's what's happening up in the fields that is most critical.

LYDEN: Heller says that at poorly managed farms, livestock often endanger watersheds. Herds of cows erode the ground, and that leads to soil runoff. The runoff then gets mixed in with nutrient-dense manure and fertilizer, and that stuff eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay. But at the Clagett Farm, nitrogen-absorbing legumes are bound and cows are moved around from pasture to pasture to maintain fresh fields. And fencing always keeps the animals away from the streams.

Down at the bottom of the hill, Heller showed us how all the layers of filtering fit together.

HELLER: So here, you can see we've got two strands of electric fence on our left and a beautiful pasture field with nice lush grass. And on our right - well, just below the fence, we have a farm road, so this would be a grass buffer. But just off the road to the right, we have another 30-plus feet - about 30 to 40 feet, it varies - that is woods.

LYDEN: And that's where we're headed, into the woods.

HELLER: We'll see how intrepid you really are. Let's see if we can cut right through here in these trees.

LYDEN: The forest is dense, and Heller puts his hand right down into the ground.

HELLER: Look how rich that is. It's a sponge that's not going to allow any nutrients or water to run off. So by the time that droplet hits the stream, it has little or no sediment in it and very minimal or no nutrients, so that what we're sending down to the Bay is a positive thing for the oysters and the crabs. And, of course, that means it's a good thing for the watermen.

LYDEN: Heller says that the key to clean water health is a holistic approach.

HELLER: And that's the way more and more farmers are starting to think. Does the system work? The cattle, the vegetables, the hay, the pasture, the crops, do they all fit together in a system that works and protects water quality?

LYDEN: And it doesn't just begin and end with the farmer. Dan Charles has a tip for all of us.

CHARLES: Even you and your lawn, don't fertilize it. A beautiful green grassy lawn is not natural, and you're probably putting more nutrients on there than it needs.

LYDEN: So please don't feed the algae.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HELLER: Hey, guys, you're in for a treat here. The pipes take a little warming up. So you have to be prepared for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES)

HELLER: Love to be out there first thing in the morning when the mist is rising. That's when I really like to play the pipes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES)

HELLER: And my theory is, I mean, these cow breeds are historically British breeds. So I think they're going back to their historic roots and their love for the pipes. When you look at their eyes and you see that faraway look, you just can't help but imagine them picturing the highlands.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES)

HELLER: Well, guys, what do you have to say?

LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.