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Across Midwest, Clearing Algal Blooms From Nutrient Runoff Has High Price Tag

Kristofor Husted
Harvest Public Media file photo

Algal blooms in bodies of water often caused by runoff of manure and fertilizer on crop lands have a high price tag. 

Aneconomic analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that 22 states have spent more than $1 billion altogether since 2010. Kansas, Iowa and Texas are among the states that have spent millions clearing the algae. Of the Midwestern states in the study, Iowa has spent the most — more than $40 million across six sites since 2010. 

Anne Schechinger, a senior economic analyst for EWG, says algae is often treated with chemicals that can cost thousands of dollars and don’t always work.

“So a lot of times people will apply the chemicals and then the next year the algal bloom is back again in the same water body,” Schechinger says. “So it’s really expensive because it’s a hard problem to fix.” 

Blue-green algae can be toxic and cause harm to animals and those that drink it — but instances of it are typically infrequent. Marley Beem, an Oklahoma State University extension aquaculture specialist, says most species of blue-green algae are nontoxic. 

“I compare them somewhat being similar to lightning strikes,” Beem says. “And it certainly is a bad thing when we see livestock dying. And that's a very rare but occasional thing and it's a bad thing that happens when it does happen.” 

Schechinger says they could not find a cost associated with the reports of algal blooms in Oklahoma. There has been at least one recorded harmful blue-green algal bloom recorded in Oklahoma every year since 1988, according to a 2017 OSU study.There have been no serious human illnesses reported in Oklahoma, but several animal deaths. 

Copyright 2020 Harvest Public Media

Seth Bodine joined KOSU in June 2020, focusing on agriculture and rural issues.