- The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in June indicating federal agencies, namely the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, should take more action to help communities manage risks from harmful algal blooms and hypoxia – extremely low waterway oxygen levels – which are increasing with climate change.
- GAO offered six recommendations for improvement, including developing frameworks to expand freshwater monitoring and forecasting, developing a national hazardous algal bloom prevention goal and developing performance measures to track progress.
- In their responses, the agencies largely agreed with GAO’s report and outlined their paths toward improvement. GAO will track the agencies’ progress and provide updates on its website.
Exposure to different types of hazardous algae can result in varying negative effects. The report cites numerous examples impacting residents’ day-to-day lives in local communities throughout the U.S. For instance, Salem, Oregon, issued drinking water advisories in 2018 after toxins entered the water supply; people experienced respiratory issues in Florida due to “red tide” algal blooms that occurred from 2017 to 2019; a Vermont town saw fish deaths at a recreational lake in 2017; and members of tribal nations who fish in water with algae toxins have experienced rashes, nausea and dizziness.
The report indicates harmful algal blooms are occurring in all 50 states in all types of water: freshwater, saltwater and brackish water. Overgrowths of algae in waterways can produce toxins that harm animals, humans and the environment. Algae overgrowth also is associated with some occurrences of hypoxia, which disrupts ecosystems because oxygen levels become so low that most animals cannot survive.
Most algae are not harmful and often are a food source for other organisms. However, they can grow out of control and produce toxins, and human behavior exacerbates this phenomenon. For example, nutrients from agricultural and wastewater runoff influence algae proliferation. Warm water temperatures are another notable factor, with most harmful algal blooms occurring during the summer. The bloom season is expanding, as is the occurrence of harmful blooms.
“Climate change, we’re learning, is affecting the creation of these harmful algal blooms,” said Alfredo Gomez, director of GAO’s natural resources and environment team. “One thing the experts and researchers are still trying to understand is when blooms become toxic. It’s not something that is well understood yet.”
Algal blooms and hypoxia also can cause economic harm to communities dependent on waterways. Lake closures deter recreational and tourism activities, for example, which affects local business’ profits. Wildlife deaths can affect fishing profits. And community water treatment facilities could incur increased costs to prevent toxic algae from entering the drinking water supply.
Congress established the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 to govern federal actions to address algae blooms and hypoxia. It called for creating an interagency task force, or working group, to develop strategies and assessments to assist local, state and tribal governments in managing algae bloom and hypoxia risks. Congress appointed EPA and NOAA as the co-chairs of the 20-agency working group.
“State, local and tribal governments are at the forefront when these outputs occur, because it's their beaches, it's their waterways,” Gomez said. “What they would really like is more information... They want to have a better understanding of some of the costs and benefits of different responses to deal with [algae blooms], whether that’s controlling or preventing them.”
GAO launched its investigation to examine the national program’s efforts with helping local, state and tribal governments manage risks. It identifies areas where the agencies were falling short on delivering this assistance. The report recommends developing a national prevention goal because goals help with measuring programs’ progress and success, Gomez said.
“It's good to talk about all these things and put these things out there, but it's another thing to actually have a goal and work towards it in terms of prevention,” he said. “That's one of the areas that the federal agencies focus on — especially as they help state, local, and tribal governments — to figure out how you prevent harmful things from forming in the first place.”
A key prevention strategy is to minimize runoff, Gomez said. That could occur by adding green infrastructure like retention ponds and wetlands.
Some of the recommendations can be implemented quickly, in just a few months, because they might only involve compiling guidance and posting it online, Gomez said. Others might take more time, such as updating or installing data analysis tools for developing harmful algae bloom forecasts. GAO will update the “recommendations” tab on its report website as the agencies make progress.