This was originally published in the Sun Herald on July 28. 2019
As Mississippi assesses Tropical Storm Barry’s impacts, coastal excursions are diminished because harmful toxic algal blooms have closed every beach in the state. More than an unfortunate situation, these toxic blooms are a serious public health threat that requires a substantive, actionable response from our elected leaders.
Outbreaks of toxic algae are not rare—they are a natural part of the ocean environment and result from the infusion of freshwater in saltwater—but this specific threat is avoidable. Due to historic flood waters on the Mississippi River bringing massive amounts of polluted freshwater, and the impacts of climate change and pollution, this crisis is more severe than what should normally occur.
As a teacher and former environmental scientist, I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of these outbreaks. One of the great joys of my life is teaching children arts, ecology and appreciation for the beauty and wonder of nature. But due to the algae, I canceled a summer camp boat trip to take plankton samples from the Gulf to teach the kids about marine life. I couldn’t take the risk of exposing children to toxic algae because they could have cuts or scrapes that could get infected and their health demands consideration in everything I do as a teacher.
We have a moral obligation to protect our nation’s water because we all deserve clean water. We cannot prevent storms but we can act on climate change to mitigate their impacts. We cannot eradicate pollution, but we can work to make sure it does not seep into our waterways.
Events like these beach closures have many disastrous impacts on Mississippi’s coast. They mean fewer visitors to the attractions, shops, and restaurants, along our Gulf Coast. An entire economy that depends on seasonal tourism and activities related to the ocean has been severely impacted as closed signs translate to less revenue for local businesses. Moreover, the people that live on the Mississippi coast are unable to enjoy the coastal activities and waters that attracted many of us to call this wonderful place home.
People should be able to depend on their government to clean up pollution, address climate change, and protect our cherished spaces. Flooding, the introduction of massive amounts of freshwater, nutrients and pollution into the Mississippi Sound, and toxic algal blooms that result cannot be solved by local actions in Mississippi alone. It is unfortunately clear that we are not doing enough as a nation to protect our waters, and our way of life on the coast is impacted. Mississippi’s Congressional delegation must prevent future toxic algae outbreaks by supporting a strong Clean Water Act, supporting federal efforts that encourage on-farm conservation efforts to prevent fertilizer run-off, and advancing measures to increase the use of natural infrastructure to manage our nation’s waterways and provide a buffer from extreme weather.
We can still do our part locally by helping rural communities convert leaky septic tanks to modern sewer systems and implementing other efforts to prevent run-off to the coast. But make no mistake: the current unprecedented crisis is triggered upstream in the Mississippi River basin. Increasing rainfall from climate change means it could well happen again. Maintaining safe and healthy coastlines is something we can all agree on, because we all stand to benefit from keeping these areas clean.
Leah Bray is a school teacher in Ocean Springs, and director of the Art & Ecology Camp for the Mississippi Wildlife Federation.