Why Are We Monitoring HABs?

Why Are We Monitoring HABs?

HABs occurrence has been linked to phosphorus and other nutrient inputs and is exacerbated by heavy rain events and warming waters related to climate change. One part of why nutrient addition gets so much attention is that ecologically speaking, we can’t control the weather, wind, temperature, or biotic interactions in the lake between species, even though all of these factors also contribute to HABs. 

In terms of mitigating HABs from the source, volunteering in this way is more of an “end-of-the-pipe” strategy. However, this type of community action often spurs change up the ladder. These local volunteer efforts are truly an important part of keeping the public safe from HABs and lead to government solutions to stopping the spread of HABs in the first place. As private citizens, we only have the power to monitor HABs, even though we know pretty much where the nitrification is coming from. Monitoring HABs is essential to understanding the bigger picture of how these booms spread and change with the climate and with time.

Harmful algal blooms have been reported in every coastal U.S. state. Due to its spatial scale and increasing growth, a plethora of various databases containing information on nutrient levels, have been created as resources for secondary organizations to eradicate the blooms. 

The EPA posits that their many national research programs help to create “innovative solutions to address the problem of nutrient pollution.” According to the EPA, policy makers and environmental managers can use databases to develop a national ranking of recreational water bodies with the greatest exposure to HABs, which can then be used as “early-warning indicators of areas more likely to experience blooms at the local scale while maintaining continuous national coverage, or to quantify change in cyanoHABs over time.”

Pairing the most technologically proficient surveillance software with state departments of health and other HABs related organizations is the best way to communicate accurate HABs information efficiently. An example of this is the Harmful Algal Bloom-related Illness Surveillance System (HABISS), a monitoring and alerting program run by the Departments of Health and/or Environment from 11 states from 2007-2011. These states “built response capacity through targeted public outreach and prevention activities, including supporting routine cyanobacteria monitoring for public recreation waters.” The State Departments applied HABISS data “to develop a wide range of public health prevention and response activities,” and to support 196 public health advisories, ensuring the safety of thousands of people and animals.

Since HABs are so widespread, different states have developed individual strategies for tracking and suppressing the spread. In response to HABs in their drinking and recreational water, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) developed guideline values for the four most common cyanotoxins in Oregon’s fresh waters. These guidelinesallowed the OHA “to promote toxin-based monitoring (TBM) programs, which reduce the number of health advisories and focus advisories on times and places where actual, rather than potential, risks to health exist. TBM allows OHA to more efficiently protect public health while reducing burdens on local economies that depend on water recreation-related tourism.” 

Another finding from years of combatting HABs is the importance of “partnering of state regulatory programs with citizen and user-fee sponsored monitoring efforts.” These partnerships allow for more information and data to be exchanged and leads to discoveries like SoundToxins, a HABs surveillance program that allows citizens to share their observations with scientists. SoundToxins was created by the Washington State government and Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom (ORHAB) Partnership. These integrated programs “provide an effective interface between formalized state and federal programs and observations by the general public, county staff and trained citizen volunteers,” make for “the best possible early warning systems” of a HABs outbreak.

When it comes to bacterial infestations in large bodies of water, the bottom line is that research leads to management and eradication. “CyanoHABs (cyanobacteria) may serve as an indicator because they are easily measured from satellite, respond quickly to ecosystem alterations, may be mitigated through management actions, and are a response to anthropogenic eutrophication.” 

EPA Staff member, Antonio Bravo, has led national education and outreach efforts to support programs to protect and restore America’s aquatic ecosystems through the EPA’s Office of Water for the past 26 years. His experience in the field of environmental outreach led him to the following conclusion

“Clearly, much is being done on the technical side to reduce nutrient pollution, yet there is recognition that the general public may not fully understand the basic association between nutrient pollution and algal blooms, nor how nutrient pollution can impact their communities and livelihoods.”