December 13, 2019

Blooming Algae and Legal Disputes

Kendra Brown, Karen Murray, and Susan Paulsen

Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, occur when phytoplankton—photosynthetic microorganisms that live in water—grow to dense, extensive populations that may harm humans, pets, and wildlife. The most worrisome HABs produce chemical toxins that can cause mild to severe illness and even death. Domestic water sources impacted by toxic HABs are unsafe to use for drinking, cooking, or bathing. In contrast, non-toxin producing HABs do not pose acute health risks but can still damage ecosystems and local economies, e.g., depleting dissolved oxygen, which harms aquatic organisms; discouraging tourism that relies on clean water or abundant fish; and giving water an unappealing musty taste and odor, which affects consumers of water and beverages made with water (like beer). Globally, HABs are increasing in frequency and intensity. E.g., Jeff C. Ho et al., Widespread Global Increase in Intense Lake Phytoplankton Blooms since the 1980s, available at www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1648-7 (Oct. 14, 2019). As HABs become more severe, water managers face greater scrutiny from the public, as well as legal action by citizen and environmental groups. 

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