Reporter's Notebook: Toxic Algae Blooms and What to Do About Them | CAI

Reporter's Notebook: Toxic Algae Blooms and What to Do About Them

Oct 21, 2020

 As CAI reported this week, algal blooms in local ponds can be dangerous to humans and animals. They are also a sign of a bigger problem; pollution from human sources like septic systems and more recently, the effects of climate change.  CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Climate and Environment reporter Eve Zuckoff about some of the key things she learned in reporting about cyanobacteria blooms and how to tackle the problem.  

Eident Thanks for joining us.

Zuckoff Hi, Kathryn. Thanks for having me.

Eident So, Eve, you took a close look at what causes toxic cyanobacteria blooms and what could be done about it in a three-part series. Remind us, why is this type of algae an issue?

Zuckoff So, cyanobacteria are a natural part of an aquatic ecosystem, but it's warm temperatures and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that really act like fuel. So, these little cyanobacteria multiply really quickly and they can form toxic blooms that spread over any given pond.

In this series, we spoke with a man on Martha's Vineyard who was exposed to a toxic bloom and he experienced complete disorientation, numbness, neurological symptoms. That was months ago, he still experiences them. But I mean, these blooms have poisoned and even kill dogs all over the country.

And what's interesting about them, I think, is that when you visualize them, they often kind of look like green paint floating on a pond, which I think many people have seen and not thought much about. But they are a growing concern that could really become a public health nightmare all over New England.

Eident So, there are more than 1,000 ponds across the Cape and Islands, but only a few of those ponds are monitored, which has led some researchers to think that the problem is actually far worse than what's being recorded. Why are so few ponds being monitored?

Zuckoff It's a simple answer. The state doesn't currently require it. And as we heard, Barnstable County officials already have their hands full monitoring beaches ponds for E. coli, the fecal bacteria. They just don't have the time to add in this extra monitoring.

So, right now, the state offers recommendations to town health agents once a suspicious bloom has already formed, which isn't ideal. But most small towns have one health agent who's also in charge of restaurant inspections and EEE and their town's coronavirus response, so it's just not feasible for them to proactively monitor without funding and support from an outside group.

Eident Does that mean this issue is something the state should step in and help with in a bigger way?

Zuckoff I think, from what we've reported, it makes more sense for the state to tighten regulations. Without a requirement for monitoring, we found there are towns on the Cape that are really just falling through the cracks when it comes to making sure that ponds are safe.

So the state could provide more funding to community science groups like the Association to Preserve Cape Cod to actually do the water testing. And then, towns could focus just on posting signs and alerting the public, making sure they're educated, making sure they're being safe.

It's actually really important to remember—if it was more available, this data could even be used to illustrate why it's so important to be making changes to our local wastewater infrastructure. Like, 80 percent of the Cape relies on septic systems and they are what's fueling this problem. So, the more data, the more information, the more funding, the more genuine accountability, the closer we get to solving this problem.

Eident And, it's not like Massachusetts would be inventing its own system. There are other states that have similar issues and they have programs in place. Is that right?

Zuckoff  Yeah, absolutely. So, volunteers with the University of Rhode Island's Watershed Watch program are able to monitor about 70 of the state's 350 ponds. They do it every two weeks during the spring and summer months. Proportionally, that's way higher than what the Cape is able to monitor. We monitor about 50 of 1,000 ponds.

Other states like Maine and Vermont, they do something where interesting where they maintain a central cyanobacteria database. It looks like this kind of interactive map that allows people to see their pond and assess whether it's safe to swim in a pretty real-time way. There's no central database in Massachusetts.

Eident So public awareness and protecting public health are certainly really important. But, it kind of sounds to me like the issue at the core of this is making infrastructure changes--you mentioned that. And that's to stop allowing septic runoff into ponds and causing these blooms in the first place.

Zuckoff Absolutely. A massive part of this solution here is to replace septic systems with alternatives that reduce how much nitrogen can seep into the groundwater.

And actually, many of these systems are already being developed right here on Cape Cod. There are a lot that work at a lower cost. Many rely on wood chips, actually. And, then beyond that, to really address the problem, the wider scale solution is to really invest in sewering and shellfish projects, for example, that reduce nitrogen overloading.

And this, of course, also goes hand-in-hand with climate change. This country, this state, these towns -- to get this problem under control -- need to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming because the warming is such a key ingredient in fueling these toxic blooms.

And then finally, if I could just leave you with this: Costs... are a huge impediment. They're a huge issue. But, we have seen massive cleanup efforts before in places like Boston Harbor. You know, that was done with the help of state and federal dollars. And we have the same large scale pollution problem right now on the Cape and Islands. It's just more spread out. And frankly, it's only going to get worse if we continue down this same path.

Eident Eve Zuckoff, CAI reporter, thank you so much for doing this research and for coming on to talk about some extra points in addition to your series.

Zuckoff Thank you, Kathryn.

This conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.