Summer in Idaho holds endless recreation opportunities, especially when it comes to the water. Idahoans and visitors head out to Idaho’s lakes, rivers, and reservoirs every weekend for a chance to cool off. But many of these water bodies aren’t safe to swim in or even touch – due to toxic algae. 

Every summer, we see outbreaks of toxic algae render some of our favorite places unsafe for recreation and our health. When conditions are primed in our waters, populations of toxic algae have the potential to explode, producing potentially fatal cyanotoxins that can cause severe illness or death from direct contact, ingestion, and even exposure to wind-borne spray. These outbreaks also lead to health advisories and closures on water bodies that normally provide an escape from the summer heat. And while it is important that everyone knows how to identify and report toxic algae, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Tackling the root problem

Toxic algae outbreaks are driven by a number of factors: amount of direct sunlight, presence of slow-moving water, warm water temperatures, and excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water. Out of all of these factors, the one that is most directly tied to human activities – and thus the one that we can theoretically control the most – is the problem of excess nutrients. Many of Idaho’s rivers, lakes, and reservoirs have issues with excess nitrogen and phosphorus, primarily stemming from agricultural runoff, waste from concentrated animal feeding operations, leaking septic systems, and excess fertilizers on fields, lawns, and golf courses. Thus, to have any hope of reducing the number of toxic algae outbreaks we see every year in Idaho, we must take necessary actions to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to our waters.  

The need for monitoring and funding

In addition to addressing the root causes of toxic algae, we also need to ensure that the state agencies entrusted with environmental protection and human health (IDEQ and IDHW) have the resources they need to identify and respond to outbreaks when they inevitably occur. Every year, we see outbreaks in Fernan Lake in the north, Cascade Lake in the south, Henrys Lake in the east, and Brownlee Reservoir along the Oregon border, yet there is no regular or proactive monitoring on these water bodies. The lack of comprehensive monitoring for toxic algae is in large part due to the lack of dedicated funding for any state agency to tackle this public health hazard head-on and protect people, pets, livestock, fish, and wildlife.

ICL is advocating for DEQ to receive sufficient dedicated funding annually to support a full-time toxic algae coordinator position and cover the costs associated with a routine monthly monitoring program of at-risk water bodies across the state. Proactive monitoring will allow IDEQ to more quickly identify toxic algae outbreaks and allow local health districts and/or IDHW to promptly issue health advisories when outbreaks are discovered. 

This kind of dedicated toxic program is not unprecedented; our neighbors to the south in Utah have a rather robust program that is supported by $200k in annual appropriations from the Utah State Legislature.

What can you do?

While we appreciate the efforts by IDEQ, IDHW, and local public health districts, more needs to be done. Currently, no state or local agencies receive any funding to work on toxic algae issues, monitoring, or notification.

Based on threats to public and environmental health, Governor Little and the Idaho Legislature should allocate dedicated funding to the IDEQ and IDHW to proactively monitor for toxic algae, ensure a robust notification process is in place, and increase education and prevention of toxic algae. 

Take action below and let Idaho leaders know that you want funding allocated toward this public health hazard. After all, we all benefit from clean water!