Toxic Algae Contaminates U.S. Water

By ShellyT
Aug 9th, 2009, A World of Progress, Feature

Algae in Big Stone Lake

Algae in Big Stone Lake

This is a photo I took of Big Stone Lake in Minnesota the last week of July. On the day I arrived at the campground there, the algae was floating in the water, and four days later it was the water, like a soup of pureed parsley. Naturally, no one would swim or even walk in water like that. It’s good that it’s naturally revolting (and smells bad) because as the algae grows and dies off, it can become toxic and even poisonous. Pets and people can become very sick or even die if they get this slime on them, breath it in, or somehow ingest it. How dangerous is it? From the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency:

What: Harmful algal blooms (HAB) are blue-green (cyanobacterial) algal blooms containing toxins or other noxious chemicals, which can pose harmful health risks.

Why is this a concern? People or animals may develop skin irritation or upper respiratory problems from exposure to HAB, and in extreme cases, dogs and other animals have even died after drinking lake water containing these toxins.

Where: Severe blue-green algal blooms typically occur on lakes with poor water quality (high in nutrients), and look like green paint, pea soup, or a thick green cake (see photo gallery below for examples). HAB often result in extremely low water clarity (less than 1 foot). There is no visual way to predict the toxicity of an algal bloom

What should I do? When these conditions are present, people should avoid contact with the water and they should prevent animals from swimming in or drinking the water. . . . the safest course of action is to avoid contact with all blue-green blooms.

This thick algae is growing in lakes and rivers all over the country lately (even in Florida) and it is caused by human activity, like global warming itself.

Many farms in the U.S. use the land right up to the river banks, where soil erosion dumps the dirt with chemicals and manure into the river. Many states have laws to enforce a 50-foot buffer zone between farming and the water, but many farmers ignore the law. And these practices have long-lasting effects on the water. From an MSNBC report (2005)

“Farmers’ routine application of chemical fertilizers and manure to the land poses a far greater environmental problem to freshwater lakes than previously thought, potentially polluting the water for hundreds of years, according to new research. . . . . Phosphorus in those substances has built up in the soil and will slowly end up in many lakes, where the nutrients lead to plant and algae growth. The environmental problem, known as eutrophication, can turn pristine lakes into smelly, weed-filled swamps with lots of dead fish.”

Local environmental groups in the area on the border with South Dakota have identified some of the pollutants and continue to work to clean up the lake by working with area farmers, but I have never seen it so bad as this year.

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But this lake is part of a river, so this is a bigger problem. The Big Stone Lake is a part of the Big Stone River, which flows into the Minnesota River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which flows down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico water has a problem with lack of oxygen due to the same pollutants which probably lead to the algae growth far up-river. As a result, all this fertilizer and phosphorous and nitrogen and manure pollution from my state ends up creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico which is choking out oxygen and preventing any life in those waters. This Dead Zone in the Gulf gets a bit bigger each year and is growing to include much of the U.S. shoreline. Much of the cause of it comes from the upper Midwest where we look the other way as farmers dump chemicals into rivers and streams.

It’s not just the farmers, by the way — it’s also people who want a perfect green lawn without weeds in their perfect grass. Phosphorous fertilizers have now been banned in some states for use on lawns, as a result. Chemical pesticides should also be banned for lawn use as it contaminates the ground water that we all use.

The media nearly ignores these pollution and contamination problems. Americans are being lulled to sleep and shouted into inaction on some very important environmental matters lately due to ongoing propaganda campaigns by a few who seem to think we can live independent of our environment.

If this continues, we will eventually lose the natural resources that we need to support human life; mainly, drinkable water.

If all the fish in this river are killed, if you can get sick just from walking in it, and the chemicals in the river build up year after year, this entire river system is off limits as a future water supply for any purpose — except perhaps to supply the coal plant Big Stone II with the water it needs to further pollute our atmosphere and land.

With climate change creating shortages of water in the future, it seems that we are on a slow track to suicide right now, through pollution of our water sources.

ShellyT, AWOP contributing editor, environment, author of Futurism Now and climate and politics podcaster at Futurism Now Radio.