We’ve all been there – you and your friends or family are enjoying a beautiful day on the lake, fishing, boating, or swimming. Then a smell that seems like it could only come from the world’s largest porta potty comes wafting in.

No, it’s not from your buddy Jim, despite the 4th chili dog he just wolfed down.

It’s from what is called an algal bloom, and it frequently occurs in still water. The problem affects many regions of the United States and the world; especially places like Florida, New York, and New Jersey.

According to Guy Foster of the United States Geological Society (USGS), “Most algal blooms are harmless, but in some cases, something is triggered to overwhelm the system, which leads to potentially harmful blooms that deprive aquatic organisms of oxygen. HABs [harmful algal blooms] also can produce toxins that pose health threats to humans and other organisms coming into contact with them.”

That’s why the USGS, in connection with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, are installing “technologically advanced monitoring systems” to study such HABs and other water quality issues. In particular, these systems will be in place on Owasco, Seneca, and Skaneateles Lakes.

HABs have extensive environmental and economic consequences. Fish, bird, and animal populations can be decimated by the toxic effects of the algal blooms, and the blooms can destroy the ability of bodies of water to sustain recreational activities such as boating or fishing. Many communities depend on such tourism and recreation to support their livelihoods. If HABs go unchecked, those industries, as well as nearby real estate values, can collapse.

While many environmental groups have claimed the use of fertilizer, industrial farming, and other human activities deserve the sole blame in causing HABs, the USGS strikes a more cautious tone.

“The exact causes of HABs are unknown and represent an active area of research,” said Foster. “In support of the state of New York’s initiative, the USGS and DEC have installed some of the most technologically advanced and robust monitoring platforms ever to be deployed in the nation to monitor water quality and the development of HABs.”

The USGS says many factors can contribute to HABs, such as fertilizer, waste products, and kicked up dust and leaves from lawn care, but just as important to keep in mind are light, temperature, and the types of algae present in the water already.

The technology being employed by the USGS and State of New York involve platforms that house “water-quality instruments at many depths, devices to monitor light and temperature, nutrient sensors and fluorometers to measure algae and organic matter.”

Fluorometers are designed to measure chlorophyll and other algal pigments that can give signs as to how and when HABs are forming in the water.

The nutrient sensors will measure nitrogen and phosphorous. These instruments should give the clearest data on how human activity, such as fertilizer use, is impacting HABs. The fact that all of this data can be pulled and observed simultaneously should also assist the USGS scientists in concluding what causes certain spikes.

While the use of technology to inform environmental decisions is incredible, Hannah Downey of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) explains that private-public partnerships and property rights incentives can also help improve water quality.

Downey explains that in Wichita, Kansas, HABs were causing a big problem for the Cheney Lake Watershed in the 1990’s, which is the city’s main water source. The city identified that in this case, farming techniques upstream were having a large impact on algal blooms.

Rather than make the use of fertilizer illegal or fine the farmers with oppressive fees, the city partnered with several concerned farmers and “formed the Citizen’s Management Committee (CMC), a farmer-led organization tasked with implementing the watershed plan.”

In addition to pursuing education of farmers in the target areas, Wichita agreed to pay roughly 30 – 40% of the cost to incentivize farmers to adopt better conservation practices in their businesses.

As a result, “Wichita has fewer algal blooms in their water, saving them water treatment costs, and the Department of Health and Environment reports lower phosphorus levels in the reservoir.”

It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you work with private property owners, as opposed to trying to force an environmental result through fees, laws, and force.


  • Adam Houser

    Adam Houser coordinates student leaders as National Director of CFACT's collegians program and writes on issues of climate and energy.