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Algae blooms have cost at least $1.1 billion over past decade, says EWG

Potentially toxic algae blooms, which are caused by farm runoff and urban wastewater running into streams and lakes, have cost an estimated $1.1 billion over the past decade in the United States, and that “is almost certainly a significant undercount,” said a report Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group.

“This enormous sum is just a drop in the bucket of what algae outbreaks are costing Americans,” said Anne Schechinger, EWG senior economic analyst and author of the report. “The damage toxic algae inflicts on recreation, property values, tourism, commercial fishing, and wildlife likely totals billions more every year.”

As evidence of the problem, the Des Moines River has become “essentially unusable” as a drinking water source for 500,000 Iowa residents because of toxic algae, the Des Moines Water Works said Wednesday, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch

EWG identified 85 locations, mostly cities and towns, in 22 states that had spent money to prevent or treat algae blooms in the past 10 years. EWG said it had “searched news databases for reports of algae outbreaks, and what communities have spent to protect or clean up the bodies of water they depend on for household use, recreation, and tourism.” These reports have shot up 600% in the past decade.

Ohio spent more than $815 million in documented expenses, or 70% of the total cost for all locations. A 2014 outbreak in Lake Erie made Toledo’s tap water unsafe to drink, and algal blooms have occurred in the area annually in recent years. Oregon was second, spending $75 million, because the state capital of Salem had a do-not-drink warning stemming from a 2018 outbreak in a nearby lake.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch said the Des Moines River suffers from levels of toxic algae more than 10 times the federal recommendation for drinking water. The Des Moines water utility had sought legal action against farm counties polluting the Raccoon River, which is another source of drinking water, but the case was dismissed in 2017.

Blooms are fed by runoff from farm fields treated with fertilizer or manure. Wastewater and stormwater in urban areas also contribute, but there is a key difference. Urban runoff is treated as “point source” pollution and subject to U.S. clean water laws. Farm pollution is a “non-point source,” because it’s difficult to say where the runoff arises. As a result, farmers are not subject to the same requirements as point-source polluters.

EWG found that “12 cities spent almost $289 million — 25% of the total costs we documented — on drinking water treatment.” That includes the money communities like Toledo have invested in cleaning up their drinking water.

“The climate crisis is quickly accelerating what was already a dangerous, expensive problem,” Schechinger said. “The best option is to prevent algae outbreaks in the first place by keeping farm chemicals out of water.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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