In summer of 2019, North Carolina state officials issued a warning to avoid toxic algae outbreaks along the Chowan River near Edenton.

This summer there was no public warning in the Edenton area, but other toxic algae outbreaks are popping up all over the state with more frequency in recent years. Governments at all levels need to act before the outbreaks get worse and damage our state’s businesses and economy.

Toxic algae outbreaks are a serious concern for public health. They cause rashes and flu-like symptoms in people, and pets.

Some animals can die from exposure. They contaminate the clean water that our children drink, causing asthma-like symptoms and expose them to potentially carcinogenic toxins.

They seriously affect the economy as well. These toxic algae outbreaks have been devastating local economies across the United States, impacting businesses across sectors.

When outbreaks get bad enough, waterside restaurant and lodging businesses can lose up to 35% of their revenue. A property’s value near a waterbody infested with toxic algae can drop by up to $85,000.

Toxic algae outbreaks also threaten aquatic life, which could be troublesome for North Carolina’s commercial fishing and outdoor recreation businesses down the road. Every year algae outbreaks are causing large scale fish kills in our state’s waterway.

The algae can deplete water’s oxygen levels and have recently been leading up to 150,000 dead fish per event in North Carolina.

In Edenton, the main issue with algae outbreaks so far has been with the stench. During the algae blooms, the smell wafts into downtown.

At Arrowhead Beach, just north of town, people are cancelling fishing trips and birthday parties at the local clubhouse. If the outbreaks get worse, this could spell bad news for Edenton’s up and coming tourism economy and housing market.

Algae is often present in healthy rivers and waterbodies. However, heavy rains, followed by periods of sunny and hot weather, create the conditions for algae outbreaks – especially when stormwater, soil erosion, and sewage spills carry phosphorus-laden runoff into nearby waterbodies.

In the Chowan River Basin, the exact causes of the recent growth in outbreaks are not fully understood, but research suggests that some of the main culprits are stormwater runoff from agriculture and forestry land and leaky septic tanks.

To solve this problem, we first need to better understand it. Research on the drivers of algae outbreaks in North Carolina needs to play a big role for effective mitigation.

Secondly, governments at all levels need to do more to support the best management practices (BMPs) in agriculture, forestry, and water infrastructure that can help mediate algae outbreaks and prevent the problem in the first place.

Between July 2010 and June 2020, the State of North Carolina spent more than $1.2 million on agriculture and urban BMPs to protect water quality.

However, there is a serious risk that these kinds of investments might take a backseat in the face of budget constraints spurred by the Covid-19 crisis. In the face of shrinking state and local budgets, the federal government has become more critical in making sure the necessary investments are made in protecting the nation’s water resources.

Businesses can play a pivotal role in stopping the algae problem in North Carolina before the problem get worse. Governments listen to businesses. If the North Carolina business community made it clear to our elected officials that more needs to be done to prevent algae outbreaks, it might lead to government action.

Failure to act could have serious consequences for the North Carolina’s businesses and economy.

If you’re a business leader, you can use this form to send a message to your federal representative and senator requesting more investment in water quality solutions.

Let’s act now before it’s too late.

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com