A new study finds that Florida has spent close to $20 million trying to deal with algae blooms over the past 10 years.
In its report, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Environmental Working Group identified 85 municipalities and other entities in 22 states that have spent money to prevent or treat algae blooms since 2010. Those 85 spent more than $1 billion, and according to EWG, that is likely a significant undercount.
“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.”
Most of the estimated costs were associated with improvements to drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater to remove contamination from an outbreak. The rest of the expenditures came from prevention measures like agricultural conservation practices and efforts to treat the algae blooms themselves.
Ohio, where a 2014 outbreak in Lake Erie made Toledo’s tap water unsafe to drink, spent more than all the other states combined: $815 million. But according to Schechinger, that doesn’t mean the state has the worst algae issues. It means the state is doing more to address the issue than others.
“If other communities were proactively tackling their algae problems the way Ohio is, the total cost of treatment and prevention would be larger throughout the country,” she said.
Algae blooms are triggered when pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus make their way into waterways. In many areas, the main source of this nutrient pollution is runoff from crop fields that have been treated with commercial fertilizer or manure.
In more urban areas, algae blooms are frequently caused by wastewater and stormwater. Aging septic tanks are another leading driver.
Some outbreaks, known as toxic algae blooms or harmful algal blooms, can even pose serious health risks to people, pets and aquatic life.
With warming air and water, as well as increasing rainfall amounts, climate change is making algae blooms more frequent, widespread, and longer in duration.
“The climate crisis is quickly accelerating what was already a dangerous, expensive problem,” Schechinger said.
Treating an algae bloom is often difficult and expensive. The cheaper and more effective solution, according to EWG, is to find the sources of nitrogen and phosphorus that are contributing to outbreaks and to stop those nutrients from getting into the water in the first place.