Rise in toxic algal blooms


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A sign warning swimmers not to take a dip in algae infested waters (Amanda S/flickr)

Eden DeWald | May 30th, 2018

With the first day of summer well on its way, so are toxic algal blooms.

Cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae, are a type of photosynthetic bacteria that produce microcystin toxins. These pose both short term exposure and a long term exposure threats to humans. Skin contact with microcystin can cause digestion issues, a sore throat and even liver damage. Whereas long term contact can create side effects as serious as cancer and liver damage. Microcystins may cause damage via ingestion or skin contact. Cyanobacteria are not only a danger to humans, and can cause large populations of fish to die off and disrupt aquatic ecosystems.

Cyanobacteria blooms have become a growing threat for waterways in the United States. The amount of blooms has grown substantially even in the past few years according to the Environmental Working Group, which saw a rise from three self reported algal blooms in 2010, to 169 reported blooms in 2017. 

The Environmental Protection Agency sites commonly used fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorus as causes for these algal blooms. When excess fertilizer runs off and finds its way into a waterway, it can create a dangerous potential home for cyanobacteria which utilizes these elements within its chemical processes.

Potential prevention methods for toxic algal blooms can include approaches such as planting vegetation buffer strips near waterways, and changing the way that fertilizers are applied to crops to prevent excess from being utilized.

 

Iowa sees record number of blue-green algae advisories


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Microcystin toxins float on top of water and often look like spilled paint or pea soup. (Oregon State University/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 9, 2016

Iowa State Park beaches saw a record number of advisories this summer due to unsafe levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by some types of blue-green algae.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors the water at state beaches each season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. DNR issued six beach advisories this week for a total of 37 microcystin warnings this year, surpassing last year’s record of 34,  just as DNR officials predicted earlier in the season.

Microcystin is considered toxic to humans when levels are at or above 20 micrograms per liter (ug/L), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Swimming in water that has harmful levels of microcystin in it can cause breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and liver damage. If the water is inhaled, it has been known to cause cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions. Contaminated bodies of water can be especially harmful to pets and children, who are more likely to ingest water.

In total Iowa DNR has issued 185 microcystin beach advisories since 2006, and two-thirds (117) have been in the most recent four years. The blue-green blooms that produce microcystin feed on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that seep into waterways from pollution sources like agricultural fertilizers, livestock waste, septic systems, and urban runoff. Blue-green algae toxins do not only pose a threat to beachgoers. Last month, Des Moines Water Works detected microcystin in treated municipal drinking water.

While DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches across Iowa for these toxins, many public and private beaches are not monitored. As the total number of beach closures rises each year, Ann Robinson, agricultural specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council said, “This is a wake-up call that more needs to be done to reduce the nutrient pollution coming from the farms, city lawns and urban and industrial wastewater plants that are feeding the algae. If we don’t take action on the scale needed, unprecedented numbers of beach warnings will become our new normal.”

More information about identifying harmful blue-green algae blooms and a chart that outlines dangerous levels of microcystin in Iowa’ lakes dating back to 2006 can be found at the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.

July marks peak season for blue-green algal blooms in Iowa


A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 19, 2016

While not expected to be as severe as last summer, Iowa outdoor recreation enthusiasts should be mindful of blue-green algal blooms this time of the year.

Warm July temperatures coupled with excess phosphorus that often runs off of farm fields into lakes and waterways creates the ideal breeding ground for blue-green algae. These conditions lead to the creation of microcystin toxins which can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitor state beaches and other waterways to determine if the water is safe for recreational activities. The state’s first instances of blue-green algae were reported at the end of June. Last summer, blue-green algae blooms led to a record closure of Iowa beaches. Iowa DNR officials have also recorded bacteria growth – such as E. coli – at some state beaches this summer.

Earlier this month, Florida governor Rick Scott issued a state of emergency because of harmful algal blooms on bodies of water in the Sunshine State. NASA satellites captured images of algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee in May.

Check out the Iowa DNR website for reports of blue-green algae and other bacteria at state-owned beaches. Mary Skopec with the Iowa DNR advises swimmers, boaters, others to be cautious of water that is green in color or scummy in texture.

“When in doubt, stay out,” Skopec said.

Iowa DNR predicts record beach closures due to algae blooms


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Patterson Lake algae bloom, Washington State. (State of Washington Department of Ecology)
Jenna Ladd | June 15, 2016

Iowa experienced a record number of beach closures last year due to blue green algae blooms, and this year could be worse, says the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As of August 2015, Iowa state park beaches had been closed 25 times over the summer season due to extremely high levels of microcystins in the water. Microcystins are toxins produced by blue green algae blooms that can be lethal to pets and cause skin irritation, rashes, as well as flu-like symptoms in humans. Iowa Public Radio reports that with the summer season only beginning, just under half of Iowa’s waterways are already on the Iowa DNR’s impaired waters list.

The blue green algae that release these harmful toxins are the result of an abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients. The steady rise of blue green algae across the midwest can be attributed to changing agricultural practices, population growth, and climate change. In practice, phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers, septic tanks, and other sources enter waterways through runoff. Next, they flow into bigger bodies of water like lakes and rivers, then naturally present algae feed on the nutrients, allowing them to multiply quickly. Finally, with the perfect combination of warm temperatures and adequate sunlight, algae blooms form across the body of water allowing for the release of microcystins. Iowa began testing for this type of harmful bacteria just two years ago as a part of a pilot project. Algae and bacteria in water are tested weekly and results can be found here.

Mary Skopec, coordinator of beach monitoring for the Iowa DNR, says that we’re likely to see beach closures during this week. Iowa lawmakers looked to pass policy that would help to offset nitrates and phosphorus in waters this year, but failed to reach agreement.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the federal Environmental Protection Agency collaborated to release a satellite imagery system that tracks algae blooms across the country last October. The Environmental Protection Agency is working to create a mobile app using this data to alert swimmers of dangerous blooms nearby.

Until then, Skopec says to err on the side of caution, “better safe than sorry, when in doubt, stay out.”

Algal blooms hit at least 14 Iowa beaches


A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | July 15, 2015

As temperatures rise algal blooms are popping up in Iowa waterways.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has posted advisories cautioning swimmers to stay out of the water at 11 state parks because of harmful algal blooms. Algal blooms are caused by a combination of phosphorus pollution and high temperatures which creates microcystin toxins in the water. When ingested these toxins can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

A recent blue-green algae breakout on Crystal Lake in north central Iowa has caused a “substantial fish kill” on the 264-acre body of water. Thousands of fish died due to reduced oxygen levels from the algal outbreak. Iowa sees between five and 14 cases of microcystin poisoning each year and an infectious amoeba caused the death of a 14-year old boy swimming in a Minnesota lake earlier this summer.

“The toxins can affect the liver as well as the nervous system. In the most extreme they can cause respiratory distress. Often times we see issues with nausea or diarrhea, headache, that kind of thing,” IOWATER Program Coordinator and Iowa DNR Research Geologist Mary Skopec told Radio Iowa.

Iowa DNR monitors beaches at 39 state parks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Last summer DNR officials posted advisories at 22 beaches.

Currently the Iowa DNR advises against swimming at 14 beaches: Backbone Beach, Beed’s Lake Beach, Big Creek Beach, Black Hawk Beach, Denison Beach, Emerson Bay Beach, Geode Lake Beach, Lake Darling Beach, Lake MacBride Beach, North Twin Lake Wet Beach, Pine Lake South Beach, Rock Creek Beach, Springbrook Beach, and Union Grove Beach.

Iowa could soon face water situation similar to Toledo


Nick Fetty | August 7, 2014
Blue green algae growing on Lake Eric. ( NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/Flickr)
Blue green algae growing on Lake Erie. (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/Flickr)

Algae blooms in Iowa could contaminate the water supply, similar to what recently happened in Toledo, and according to one expert, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus inundate Iowa waterways and that coupled with high temperatures provides the perfect breeding ground for algae. The state has implemented a voluntary plan which encourages farmers to practice agricultural techniques that will lessen the amount of fertilizer run-off which leads to contaminated waterways in Iowa.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently advised beach-goers to avoid the waters at Lake Red Rock in Marion County due to excessively high levels of blue green algae which is known to contain toxins that are harmful to humans and can be lethal for animals. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises swimmers to take extra precaution in Iowa lakes during this time of the year. There are currently about dozen state-operated beaches in Iowa where swimming is not advised.

Attornys general from Iowa and 14 other agricultural and ranching states have spoken out against a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule for the Clean Water Act, fearing the proposal would place excessive regulations on farmers and ranchers. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has defended the proposal and said it does not intend to place strict federal regulations on farmers.

Approximately 600 households in southwest Iowa were recently issued a boil order before consuming tap water after water quality tests concluded that chlorine levels were not sufficient. Chlorine is used to kill bacteria and other harmful toxins as part of the water filtration process but there was no indication that bacteria or other toxins had actually contaminated the water supply.

Toledo drinking water contamination is sign of bigger problems for Lake Erie


Nick Fetty | August 5, 2014
Blue green algae grows near Duncan's Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)
Blue green algae floats near Duncan’s Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)

The recent water contamination in Toledo, Ohio is yet another instance of the pollution that is a growing problem for Lake Erie.

Local health officials advised residents that both boiling and filtering the water were ineffective in eliminating the toxins which affected the water supply of nearly half a million residents. Toledo’s public water supply was deemed unfit to consume on Saturday and remained so until Monday when Mayor Michael Collins drank a glass of tap water in front of residents and media to signal that it was once again safe for consumption. During the shortage, football players and other athletic staff from Bowling Green State University drove 26 miles up I-75 to provide fresh water for their rivals at the University of Toledo who started practice on Sunday.

Fertilizer runoff, livestock operations, and faulty septic systems have all contributed to increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Lake Erie, which has seen seen greater levels of phosphorus compared to the other Great Lakes. However, this algae problem is not unique to the Great Lakes region.

Iowa waterways too have been contaminated with algae. Heavy rainfall in the spring and early summer led to an estimated 15 million pounds of Iowa soil being eroded away which causes runoff and other contamination in Iowa waterways. Blue green algae can produce toxins that are harmful for humans and can be deadly for animals. Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advise beach-goers to take extra precaution when swimming in Iowa lakes this time of year since algae blooms are at their peak.