The end of August saw more devastating environmental news from California with stories of toxic algal blooms along the Southern California coast stranding and sickening sea lions and thousands of fish dying in San Francisco Bay.

The harmful effects on human, animal, and ecological health of growing harmful algal blooms (HAB) and hypoxia continue to concern scientists. A combination of warming waters, excess nutrients (often from agricultural runoff), and drought creating more stagnant water create ideal conditions for algae growth. NPS monitors for HABs in some of its parks, but its activities vary by park and region. Most NPS monitoring is conducted in coordination with other governmental agencies and universities. In October 2021, NPS announced a two year, nationwide HAB field study with the U.S. Geological Survey in 18 national parks. The study’s goal is to help NPS develop its guidance on HAB monitoring, testing, and response.

On June 15, 2002, the Government Accountability Office published its report, “Water Quality: Agencies Should Take More Actions to Manage Risks from Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia .” The NPS is a member of this interagency task force, referred to as the working group, charged with maintaining a national marine and freshwater HAB and hypoxia program, developing a comprehensive research plan, reporting to Congress, and assisting state, local, and tribal governments manage the risks of HAB and hypoxia events. It is co-chaired by EPA and NOAA.

While the working group has published a national research plan and action strategy, multiple reports, and planning documents, the working group has not implemented a national program. The co-chairs report that they have devoted their limited resources to these efforts, but without dedicated funding from Congress, they do not have the resources nor staff to implement the program fully. The co-chairs noted a mechanism for coordinated funding among the federal agencies would enhance their ability to work together.

GAO made six recommendations to enhance the effectiveness of the working group:

  1. document and define a national HAB and hypoxia program, including the resources (financial and staff) needed;
  2. establish performance measure for the working group;
  3. develop an interagency framework to prioritize and expand the number of waterbodies for HAB and hypoxia monitoring, including the necessary resources;
  4. develop a framework to improve HAB and hypoxia forecasting;
  5. establish a national goal to prevent HABs and hypoxia;
  6. gather more comprehensive data on the costs and benefits of actions undertaken by state, local, and tribal governments.

As our national parks are often on the front lines of climate change, identifying and responding to HAB may continue to present itself as a continual and growing challenge in managing parks. The Coalition will continue to work to address the ever-increasing causes and impacts of climate change, and support the work of the NPS as the agency works to reestablish itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change.