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Toxic water a threat to Minnesota tourism

Does the blue-green algae found in every lake in Minnesota pose an increasing risk to humans and pets?

Does the blue-green algae found in every lake in Minnesota pose an increasing risk to humans and pets?

A sickly, rotten-smelling invasion of blue-green algae in Minnesota's lakes have killed off two dogs paddling in Douglas County' Red Rock Lake and hospitalized a boy swimming in Alexandria's Lake Henry last month. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been posting advisories asking everybody to think twice about taking a dip in Minnesota's natural waters — or at the very least to keep their mouths closed. But the truth is, there's rather little people can do to predict and prevent poisoning. 

Blue-green algae grows in every lake in the state. It's a naturally occurring growth that loves the organic waste deposited by factory farms and city water treatment plants. It's not always toxic, but scientists don't actually know what specific weather conditions cause it to become poisonous. You can't tell by just looking at the algae. Sampling doesn't help either because by the time results come back, the short-lived toxicity in the water may have already ghosted away. 

It's best to always keep away from algae growing on the water surface, says Pam Anderson of the MPCA. "But one of the dog deaths reported this year, it was not a surface bloom. There was algae in the water but it wasn't a big, nasty, foul-smelling thing like you'd think of, but there was enough to take down a dog. People just need to be aware that it's not just the nasty stuff, and we don't really have a way to predict it." 

If the water's looking mighty green, best stay out, she suggests. 

As a state that boasts of its 10,000 lakes on every license plate — where others have only dead presidents — Minnesota has a tourism industry that is utterly dependent on the quality of its waters. John Edman of Explore Minnesota says that although his people are constantly concerned about preservation of the natural resources they're paid to promote, he doesn't think Minnesota's reached the point where dog-killing algae is actually putting a dent in visitors.

One reason is that there's a lot more to do on Minnesota's lakes than actually swim — boating and fishing make for much safer alternatives. Also, there are many more states with waters that are actual cesspools, so Minnesota still looks really pristine by comparison despite the dead zones in the St. Louis River and pea-soup of the southwestern lakes. 

"Travelers today are really looking for the unique and authentic, and we're still in a shape where a lot of travelers consider us to be a point of discovery," Edman says. He and others working in Minnesota's tourism industry aren't exactly the type to get up in arms over the impasse between industrial interests and environmental protection — perhaps the most divisive issue in the DFL caucus — but they're vigilant of the constant threat to their own livelihoods.  

"We don't really like to see any kind of great battle between tourism and jobs. We wanna find a way for them both to survive and thrive," Edman says. "We haven't taken a formal position on the issue, but we certainly recognize how important the Boundary Waters are for our image. We want to see that image preserved for future generations, and we just hope that it will continue to be."

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