Competing in a bass fishing tournament two years ago, Todd Steele cast his rod from his 21-foot motorboat — unaware that he was being poisoned.
A thick, green scum coated western Lake Erie. And Steele, a semipro angler, was sickened by it.
Driving home to Port Huron, Michigan, he felt lightheaded, nauseous. By the next morning he was too dizzy to stand, his overheated body covered with painful hives. Hospital tests blamed toxic algae, a rising threat to U.S. waters.
“It attacked my immune system and shut down my body’s ability to sweat,” Steele said. “If I wasn’t a healthy 51-year-old and had some type of medical condition, it could have killed me.”
He recovered, but Lake Erie hasn’t. Nor have other waterways choked with algae that’s sickening people, killing animals and hammering the economy. The scourge is escalating from occasional nuisance to severe, widespread hazard, overwhelming government efforts to curb a leading cause: fertilizer runoff from farms.
Pungent, sometimes toxic blobs are fouling waterways from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay, from the Snake River in Idaho to New York’s Finger Lakes and reservoirs in California’s Central Valley.
Last year, Florida’s governor declared a state of emergency and beaches were closed when algae blooms spread from Lake Okeechobee to nearby estuaries. More than 100 people fell ill after swimming in Utah’s largest freshwater lake. Pets and livestock have died after drinking algae-laced water, including 32 cattle on an Oregon ranch in July. Oxygen-starved “dead zones” caused by algae decay have increased 30-fold since 1960, causing massive fish kills. This summer’s zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the biggest on record.
Tourism and recreation have suffered. An international water skiing festival in Milwaukee was canceled in August; scores of swimming areas were closed nationwide.
Algae are essential to food chains, but these tiny plants and bacteria sometimes multiply out of control. Within the past decade, outbreaks have been reported in every state, a trend likely to accelerate as climate change boosts water temperatures.
“It’s a big, pervasive threat that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to solve,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan environmental scientist. “If we increase the amount of toxic algae in our drinking water supply, it’s going to put people’s health at risk. Even if it’s not toxic, people don’t want to go near it. They don’t want to fish in it or swim in it. That means loss of jobs and tax revenue.”
Many monster blooms are triggered by an overload of agricultural fertilizers in warm, calm waters, scientists say. Chemicals and manure intended to nourish crops are washing into lakes, streams and oceans, providing an endless buffet for algae.
Government agencies have spent billions of dollars and produced countless studies on the problem. But an Associated Press investigation found little to show for their efforts:
—Levels of algae-feeding nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are climbing in many lakes and streams.
—A small minority of farms participate in federal programs that promote practices to reduce fertilizer runoff. When more farmers want to sign up, there often isn’t enough money.
—Despite years of research and testing, it’s debatable how well these measures work.