We need to face the facts: The algae problem in local lakes is not getting any better. And this is after decades of study, concern, complaints and more concern.

Take a look at Lake Madison and Lake Herman, where algae of various colors are painting the shoreline rocks and sandy beaches. At 1 o'clock yesterday, a very sunny Sunday afternoon, there were no swimmers at the beaches at Lake Herman State Park.

We can't blame them. Algae is not only unsightly, it can be a health hazard in certain forms, to both humans and animals.

A long-term study by Dakota State University faculty shows a fair amount of volatility of algae concentration, both up and down. But the conclusion is that over the last ten years, the average concentration hasn't gone down, and probably gone up somewhat.

The source of the problem, of course, is excess phosphorus and nitrates. These are naturally occurring in our soils, but they are also added to farm fields, residential lawns, and are produced by animals through waste. Snow melting and rains bring these elements into creeks, streams and lakes, and algae uses them for food. Some of these elements keep flowing downstream, but we keep adding more.

A few efforts over the years haven't done much. A sanitary sewer system around Lake Madison to replace septic tanks didn't improve the lake. An experimental swirling project at Lake Madison a few years flopped. A state program that provided money to improve feedlot runoff had few takers. Occasional public service campaigns haven't changed behaviors.

One of the best remedies are buffer strips, which are grasses or other vegetation planted along lakes, rivers and streams. The purpose is to filter nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from adjacent land before it gets into waterways. Our neighbors to the east in Minnesota have been more aggressive about reducing nitrogen and phosphorus from getting into their lakes, by requiring buffer strips next to creeks and streams to control runoff. South Dakota has a voluntary program to plant buffer strips, with the state providing a 40 percent tax break for farmers. But the program attracted only 27 farmers who placed 292 acres in 12 counties in the first year.

We don't expect any progress in the battle against excessive algae until someone in a leadership position -- state, county or another local entity -- decides to make it a priority and get others to join in.

-- Jon M. Hunter