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Managing Harmful Algal Blooms (Missing graph)

Big Picture

Harmful algal blooms (HAB) have widespread effects on local economies, environments and both human and animal livelihoods. While natural climate fluctuations can cause these excess growths, human activities are multiplying the effects past sustainable thresholds. The costs for human and animal healthcare, environmental restoration the economy are growing. Average HAB costs per year average at about $49 million. We need to take action to prevent harmful algal blooms.


Operative Definitions

  1. Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB): Algae overgrowths that cover bodies of water and limit biodiversity. Coming into contact with these plants can be very harmful to both humans and animals.


Important Facts and Statistics

  1. Reports of HAB instances have increased 600 percent over the last decade.

  2. The most affected areas in the United States are the Gulf of Mexico and the entire Eastern seaboard. 

  3. Over $1.1 billion has been spent mitigating the effects of HABs since 2010; about 25 percent of these total costs are due to water treatment.


Five-Point Plan

(1) Focus on preemptive measures rather than mitigation strategies.

Environment cleanups, restorative healthcare and the loss of businesses clearly incur a significant economic cost. It would be much cheaper to implement preemptive tactics, such as water aeration or chemical maintenance, at a local level in order to simply prevent these HABs in the first place. Focusing on prevention will result in a decrease in the loss of animal lives and habitats in affected areas, while also saving money on cleanups and healthcare.

(2) Make agricultural producers accountable for their waste.

Agricultural runoff carries nitrogen to bodies of water. This nitrogen can act as a fertilizer for algae, as it derives from both cow manure and the fertilizers used to grow crops. Lots of research is being done on nitrogen recapture. For instance, extensive studies are being done on buckwheat, a crop that thrives in nitrogen-rich waters. This research suggests that implementing a runoff recapture system in a dairy farm, for example, could reduce harmful algae growth and improve farm efficiency by helping to grow buckwheat that can be used to feed dairy cows. Increased, environmental accountability needn't only have distant benefits: innovative solutions can give us economic boons now. 

(3) Federal and state infrastructure plans should account for stormwater processing before it reaches large water bodies.

Urban runoff and waste also increase the likelihood of HABs. Cities, counties, states and the federal government should coordinate a strategy to prevent unfiltered runoff from reaching main water sources. This could mean redirecting and collecting stormwater in rain barrels for processing or improving overall water treatment to target the bacteria and chemicals that promote HAB growth. This would also provide an opportunity to improve water resilience at a local level, particularly in areas that are experiencing an increase in droughts. 

(4) Inform citizens on the issue. 

Reducing the potential risk of people coming into contact with HABs means reducing healthcare costs. One of the first steps in reducing this risk would be keeping the public informed about how to best keep themselves safe. This kind of campaign could involve educating citizens about how they can decrease water pollution at an individual level, teaching people about high-risk zones and raising awareness about the telltale signs of HABs. Putting this knowledge into practice could significantly lessen the impact that these plants have on our economy. Additionally, promoting simple actions at home, such as using non-toxic cleaning supplies or picking up pet waste, could significantly reduce runoff and, thus, decrease the probability of a HAB event.

(5) Invest in early warning systems and monitoring for HABs.

If we're given preemptive warning, it would be much easier to prevent HABs. Red tides are among the most toxic HABs, and their infection can cause animals to react in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Having an understanding of the warning signs of this species could allow time for the implementation of preventive measures that could help save many human and animal lives. These kinds of preparedness efforts could also help local entities mitigate any adverse effects of the plants that do form. For example, manatees in Florida have been starving due to HABs outcompeting them for the seagrass that they feed on. Local biology groups have been working hard to care for these mammals, but it has been hard due to the rapid development of algae and our lack of readiness. 


Why This Initiative Is Important

Much of the United States suffers from HABs. We spend millions of dollars cleaning them up every year. Implementing these measures will not only help save lives and biodiversity but will also help create a more sustainable economy. While many current efforts focus on HAB mitigation and restoration, a preemptive approach would have far better outcomes for a much lower investment. 


Economic Impact (From Our Student Economist Team)

The explicit costs of treating HAB are nothing compared to the costs it inflicts on recreation, property values, tourism, fishing, and wildlife, according to Environmental Working Group’s senior economic analyst Anne Schechinger. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $150 billion needs to be invested over the next 20 years for stormwater infrastructure programs.


Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources

Abbott, Chuck. "Algae Blooms Have Cost at Least $1.1 Billion over past Decade, Says EWG." Successful Farming, 27 Aug. 2020. https://www.agriculture.com/news/business/algae-blooms-have-cost-at-least-11-billion-over-past-decade-says-ewg.

Anderson, Donald M., Porter Hoagland, Yoshi Kaoru, and Alan W. White. "Economics Report - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution." Estimated Annual Economic Impacts from Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in the United States. WHOI Sea Grant, 2000. https://www.whoi.edu/cms/files/Economics_report_18564_23050.pdf.

EPA. “Harmful Algal Blooms.” Environmental Protection Agency, 2022, https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/harmful-algal-blooms.

U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms. “Proceedings of the Workshop on the Socio-economic Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms in the United States.” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, March 2021. https://cdn.coastalscience.noaa.gov/page-attachments/news/HABSocioeconomics_WorkshopProceedings.pdf.


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