Just Plain Lucky

Aug 31, 2023
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

As the plane rose into the sky, I looked out my window eagerly anticipating the beautiful sparkling Bay views. But instead, the water was murky and reddish-brown.

It was the end of July, and Baykeeper had just received the summer's first hotline reports of a suspected algae bloom along the East Bay shoreline. But flying out of SFO, I could also see discolored water along the Bay's western shore.

As soon as we landed, I texted photos to the Baykeeper field team. I knew they would monitor the extent of the bloom and take water samples for agency partners to analyze. And then I spent my week-long vacation trying to unplug and wondering if I would see the Bay make international headlines again this year.

Algae bloomLuckily, this year's algal bloom came and went with little incident. Community scientists recorded several fish deaths, but nothing on the scale of last year’s massive fish die off.

It's unclear why the bloom dissipated so quickly this time. Maybe the water was fortunately just a little cooler, or the sky was a little cloudier than last year. Or maybe the winter floods and recent snow melt created slightly different conditions for the algae not to go wild.

However, just the fact that Heterosigma akashiwo overtook the Bay two years in a row is alarming. Last year was the first notable bloom in the Bay in over 20 years, and now the Bay was hit again just a year later.

Perhaps we've just gotten lucky that killer blooms haven't occurred more frequently. After all, San Francisco Bay is one of the most nutrient-dense estuaries in the world. That's because 37 sewage plants discharge treated wastewater into the Bay. However, these plants are not set up to remove nitrogen and phosphorus – the food that algae thrive on – from their discharges.

As sewage plants continue to dump millions of gallons of nutrient-polluted water into the Bay every day, the Bay Area is also experiencing extreme changes in climate patterns. It's possible that the combination might just cause summer algae outbreaks to become our new normal.

That's why Baykeeper is advocating for infrastructure upgrades and better regulation of the Bay Area's sewage plants. Our scientists serve on technical committees and recommend increased water recycling and nature-based solutions, such as filtering wastewater through wetlands. We're also leading the charge for regulators to adopt the first-ever permit to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Bay. We're pushing for this new permit to require stronger pollution controls and climate resilience strategies to prevent future algae blooms.

We're not leaving the Bay's health up to just plain luck. And you can help us! In a few weeks, we'll be asking the agency that issues the permits for sewage plants to adopt stronger limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in the Bay. If you want to protect the Bay from future algal blooms, you can advocate for the Bay here. Please sign on to the letter before September 10 and ask the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to protect the Bay from future algae outbreaks.

Every signature counts, so feel free to spread the word and share this call to action with anyone you know who cares about the health of San Francisco Bay as much as you do.

Photo, at top: View of a possible algal bloom in San Francisco Bay from a United flight out of SFO on 7/29/2023.

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