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Harmful Algal Blooms

What Are Harmful Algal Blooms?

Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, are colonies of algae that grow out of control and pose a threat to humans, the environment, and to the economy. They can sometimes appear as large clumps of foul-smelling gunk, washed up on beaches or at the edges of lakes. Other times, they can cover the entire surface area of pond, depriving anything beneath the water of sunshine and oxygen. Algal blooms can be blue-green, green, red, or colorless. When they’re red, HABs are often referred to as “red tide.” Some species of algae can produce debilitating toxins, kill off fish, oysters and other seafood, and contaminate drinking water supplies. Not all algal blooms are harmful though; In fact, less than one percent of blooms produce dangerous toxins. Under normal circumstances, algae are necessary photosynthetic, aquatic plants that form the base of food chains around the world.

Unfortunately, though, harmful algal blooms have been increasing in occurrence, duration, density, and range around Long Island, the United States, and the globe. A “rainbow” of harmful algal blooms has been reported in nearly every coastal waterway on Long Island in recent years. As a result, fish, turtles, shellfish and other sea creatures have perished.


Moreover, according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), every single American state with a coast line or a Great Lake has reported harmful algal blooms in their waters. Humans and pets can be exposed to HAB toxins by drinking, swimming, or boating in contaminated water. The side effects of the toxins can range from vomiting and flu-like symptoms, to gastrointestinal illnesses, and, in some cases, death. Every year, HABs are estimated to cost the United States approximately $82 million dollars, due to their effects on public health, tourism, and the seafood industry.

Algal blooms are believed to occur when pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous leak into waterbodies. Leakage can occur during a rain storm when lawn fertilizers are washed away, or more insidiously, from home septic systems. A conventional onsite septic system was never designed to remove nitrogen and the average residential septic system discharges approximately 40 pounds of nitrogen per year (there are about 360,000 homes on convention septic systems in Suffolk County alone). This eventually makes its way to Long Island’s aquifer, which in turn, makes its way to Long Island’s bays and harbors.

But there is hope on the horizon. Suffolk County and a few East End towns have set the stage for improvements and are proposing and implementing septic upgrade programs which will swap out conventional septic systems for newer, alternative models which can remove at least 70% of nitrogen from waste. This past summer, Suffolk County launched a new website that it developed dedicated to helping homeowners and industry professionals learn more about this issue and to take action. Under the Reclaim Our Water Septic Improvement Program, homeowners who decide to replace their cesspool or septic system with the new technologies will be eligible for a grant of up to $11,000. More information can be found at http://reclaimourwater.info/

Suffolk County has devised the Septic Improvement Program consisting of both a grant and low-interest financing program as the next logical piece of the Reclaim Our Water initiative -- an effort to replace some of the many conventional septic systems on Long Island.

By Hannah Stewart, The Nature Conservancy

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