Nutrients

sewage

Coal Ash

impaired waterways

Dams

Sediment

Nutrient Pollution on the Coosa River

Just like you and me, nutrients are essential for waterbodies to be healthy and sustain life. Nutrients are simply the substances that help organisms grow and thrive. Nutrient and minerals being loading into a waterbody is natural and expected in moderation. However, when too much nutrients are added to a waterbody, it can become an issue impacting water quality as algae and aquatic weeds grow too excessively. In freshwater systems such as the Coosa, the primary nutrients to keep an eye on are phosphorus and nitrogen. 

Nutrient can enter our waterways from point sources, like wastewater discharges from industry, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and wastewater treatment plants. It can also come from nonpoint sources, like stormwater runoff, landscaping/clearing, and agricultural nonpoint sources. Agricultural runoff is the largest contributor to water quality impairments in the United States. Nutrient pollution for the Coosa River watershed is to be addressed and regulated through the Total Maximum Daily Load, or “pollution budget” program.

What is a Harmful Algae Bloom?

Algae blooms are an overgrowth of algae and associated organisms caused by excess nutrients in a waterway. Some blooms can produce dangerous toxins, but even nontoxic algal blooms can be detrimental to fishery health, water quality, and the local tourism economy. When an algae bloom grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds, it becomes a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB). In freshwater ecosystems like the Coosa, cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are the organisms of concern sometimes produced by HABs that can produce extremely dangerous cyanotoxins. While algal blooms can often be seen by the naked eye, further testing is required to confirm if it is a HAB by testing for cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins.

FAQs on Harmful Algal Blooms

Explore below to learn more about the appearance, causes, and effects of HABs!

What does an algal bloom look like?

Algal blooms can vary greatly in appearance and seriousness, as not all are harmful. A waterbody experiencing an algal bloom may look scummy, foamy, have mats of algae, or look painted or dyed. Color can also vary from red to blue to yellow to green, depending on the nutrients and organisms involved. In freshwater systems, cyanobacteria blooms typically appear like vivid green paint, but can also vary greatly in appearance. As a rule of thumb, people and animals should avoid entering waterways that smell bad, look discolored, have lots of visible algae, or have dead organisms, like animals or fish, around the water’s edge.

What makes it a Harmful Algal Bloom?

An algal bloom becomes a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) when it has high amounts of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, that produce cyanotoxins. Cyanotoxins are a group of chemicals made by cyanobacteria that can be extremely dangerous to humans and wildlife. These toxins can get into your body and cause illness through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Illnesses from cyanotoxins can range in severity from a stomach ache or headache to paralysis and death. A few of the more comon cyanobacteria types that produce cyanotoxins are: Aphanizomenon, Dolichospermum, Microcystis, Planktothrix, and Raphidiopsis.

What causes a Harmful Algal Bloom?

Harmful Algal Blooms are caused by eutrophication. Eutrophication is the natural process by which waterways get progressively more enriched with minerals and nutrients. Prior to human interference, this process was very slow, but human activity has accelerated it greatly. Contributing causes to eutrophication and HAB formation are warm, slow-moving water with excess nutrient loading and plenty of sunlight exposure. Nutrient loading can occur from point sources, like wastewater discharges from industry, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and wastewater treatment plants. It can also come from nonpoint sources, like stormwater runoff, landscaping/clearing, and agricultural nonpoint sources. Agricultural runoff is the largest contributor to water quality impairments in the United States. 

Nitrogen and phosphorus are key nutrients that control algae growth, with phosphorus being the main contributing factor in nearly all freshwater ecosystems. Limiting phosphorus is required to mitigate most algal blooms. Excess nutrients encourage algae growth that is fast but short-lived. This algae die-off leads to a high load of decaying organic material that must be decomposed. Decomposers utilize the dissolved oxygen in the water and create “dead zones” that are hypoxic, oxygen concentration too low to sustain life. These “dead zones” can also cause fish kills.

What should I do if I suspect I see a Harmful Algal Bloom?

Because the visual appearance of a Harmful Algal Bloom varies greatly, it can be hard to know for sure when one is happening. As a rule of thumb, avoid entering any waterbodies that may look scummy, foamy, have mats of algae, or look painted or dyed. Color can also vary from red to blue to yellow to green, depending on the nutrients and organisms involved. Cyanobacteria blooms typically appear like vivid green paint, but can also vary greatly in appearance.  Report any suspected algal blooms, or any other pollution concerns to us by filling out a citizen complaint here.

The Coosa River’s “Pollution Budget”

In response to rising nutrient pollution and other water quality issues, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has issued a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for five out of six of the lakes in the Coosa River chain for a variety of water quality issues. The Coosa River TMDLs were established under the Clean Water Act in an effort to reduce the contributing factors to recurring water quality issues. However, the permits, regulations and enforcement for TMDLs are performed by our state agencies who often focus on protecting industry rather than the people who rely on the river for food, drinking water, recreation and sustenance, or the health of the ecosystem itself. You might notice that each of the Coosa River TMDLs are issued due to nutrient enrichment and mention a need to address contributing nutrient pollution sources. 

Lake/Reservoir
Causes
Sources 
Size
Usage
Weiss Nutrients

Industrial

Upstream sources

32,120 acres

Public Water Supply

Swimming

Fish & Wildlife

Neely Henry

Nutrients

pH

Organic enrichment (CBOD, NBOD)

Priority organics (PCBs)

Industrial

Municipal

Flow regulations/modification

Upstream sources

Contaminated sediments

11,133.28 acres

Public Water Supply

Swimming

Fish & Wildlife

Logan Martin

Nutrients

pH

Organic enrichment (CBOD, NBOD)

Priority organics (PCBs)

Urban runoff & storm sewers

Flow regulation/modification

Contaminated sediments

16,686.34 acres

Public Water Supply

Swimming

Fish & Wildlife

Lay

Nutrients

Organic enrichment (CBOD, NBOD)

Priority organics (PCBs)

Upstream sources

Flow regulation/modification

Contaminated sediments

13,366.99 acres

Public Water Supply

Swimming

Fish & Wildlife

Mitchell Nutrients

Urban runoff & storm sewers

Flow regulation/modification

 

5400.33 acres

Public Water Supply

Swimming

Fish & Wildlife

 

Sources of Nutrient Pollution

Industrial Agriculture & Concerns

  • As humanity grows and the need for food production is ever increasing, industrial agriculture tries to meet that need by investing in ever-larger operations often located in problemmatic areas adjacent to the waterways we strive to protect. These operations frequently produce large-scale monoculture crops, heavily utilize chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and meat production through Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). All of these industrial agricultural practices contribute to excess nutrient loading and algal blooms into our waterways through direct releases and nonpoint source pollution. 

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

Livestock has been raised in the Coosa Valley for centuries. But more recently, a new type of “farm” where massive numbers of animals are concentrated in a small space has taken over the industry. These types of farms, where thousands of hogs or tens of thousands of chickens are raised, are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs for short) and they are every bit as industrial as the name sounds. The water quality issues that arise from CAFOs is that where you have a lot of animals in one place, you have a lot of animal waste in one place. If that waste is not well managed, it runs off into our creeks and lakes bringing with it bacteria and nutrients.

There are regulations in place to make it easier for farmers to take actions to reduce the impact of CAFOs on our waterways. Coosa Riverkeeper monitors implementation of those regulations to ensure they are sufficient and being complied with on a site by site basis. Most of Coosa Valley CAFOs are located in Big Wills Valley, with some in Big Canoe Creek and Choccolocco Creek watersheds, and a few elsewhere. The Tennessee, Black Warrior, and Choctawhatchee basins have significantly larger numbers of CAFOs, and others basins like the Cahaba and Tallapoosa have relatively few.

The impact to water quality from industrial scale livestock operations doesn’t end at the CAFO. Massive slaughterhouses discharge enormous quantities of nutrients. There are two such facilities in the Coosa Valley; one is located on Neely Henry Lake in Southside and the other is located on Big Wills Creek, which drains to Neely Henry. Collectively they discharge over one million pounds annually of nutrients that are considered toxic because in such large volumes they have an impact on aquatic life. They also contribute towards the general nutrient problem we have on the Coosa which spurs excessive growth of algae.

While we work to ensure CAFO regulations are sufficient to protect the Coosa River and to enforce those regulations upon facilities, you can help too if this news ruins your appetite. Our diets drive the demand for this type of industrialized product. Though higher in price, there are many small scale, traditional farmers in the Coosa Valley that grow livestock with less impact on water quality. 

Want to support sustainable agriculture? Us too. 

Are we missing your favorite farm and farmer in the Coosa River basin? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected]!

Consider supporting any of these great farmers located in the Coosa River basin!

Fund our water quality monitoringGet the skinny before you dip with the Coosa River Swim Guide

Ever wondered if it is safe to swim in the Coosa? Never fear, Coosa Riverkeeper is here! From Memorial Day to Labor Day, we monitor popular recreation areas weekly for harmful pathogens like E.coli and water chemistry. Will you make a $10 donation to pay for one bacteriological sample?