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Algae Problems Hit West Coast

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If you think algae blooms happen primarily along the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Southeast coastlines, well, think again. Environmental groups have just reported that blooms of toxic algae have exploded in San Francisco Bay, littering its shorelines with unprecedented numbers of dead fish.

According to the nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper, algae blooms currently are a serious issue across the Bay watershed. As a result, the group is urging people and pets to avoid prolonged contact with the Bay waters until water conditions improve.

The organization on Sunday reported hundreds of dead fish at the Oakland Yacht Club, and more were found floating in the middle of San Francisco Bay between the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges. The fish die-off was also seen along various shorelines, including Foster City, Hayward, Alameda, Lake Merritt, Keller Beach, Point Molate and Sausalito.

The group said it has also seen sharks, sturgeon and striped bass washing ashore, something they call "highly unusual."

San Francisco Baykeeper senior scientist, Jon Rosenfield, explained that in July his organization began getting reports of red-brown, tea-colored water that is associated with algae growth. He said his group and several other organizations first confirmed the algae bloom in Alameda.

"So, this has become an unprecedented bloom that is now covering most of San Francisco Bay proper,” Rosenfield emphasized. “Until now, [San Francisco Bay] has avoided this type of bloom, which we have been seen in other bodies of water.”

“We’ve theorized [that] ocean tides have helped to prevent these algae blooms [in the past], but over the past few days the number and locations of dead fish have grown exponentially,” he added.

Why is it happening? The Baykeeper group says treated wastewater that’s routinely dumped into the bay contains the algae-triggering nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous.

"This is not a malfunction,” continues Rosenfield. “This is the way our system works, and this is why, for decades, scientists and advocacy organizations have been telling the [San Francisco Bay] Regional Water Quality Control Board that we need to set more stringent limits on what these wastewater treatment plants can emit.”

"That’s why it’s now very urgent we get this nutrient enrichment from wastewater treatment plants under control,” he added.

A similar call for overdue wastewater actions is also being made in states such as Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland and Virginia. In those states, demands are growing louder for the Environmental Protection Agency, and their state EPA counterparts, to finally set rigid Total Maximum Daily Load limits on the agricultural use of fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen.

For boating and fishing interests in San Francisco, the best news is the current blooms will fade as the year goes on and the seasons change. However, nothing’s simple. The die-off of the algae leads to another problem — dead zones.

Dead zones occur when dying algae sinks to the bottom, decays, and then consumes the available oxygen from the water. Fish can’t survive without oxygen, so, when trapped in these areas, they die.

We’ve highlighted this growing national problem facing recreational boating and fishing several times over recent years. And there’s been a lot of talk about it on some federal and state levels. But, in an all-too-familiar fashion, agencies are reporting they’re “studying” the issue.

That response reminds me of the tourist standing alongside a park ranger on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

The ranger said, “You know it took 3 million years to create this canyon.”

The tourist responded, “Government job?”

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