It’s closing down lakes, resulting in economic losses for those reliant on lakeside recreation. And the reasons for its spread remain elusive.
Algae blooms have gripped Utah lakes, and their seasonal spread across the country is on the rise. By the end of August, a record 354 outbreaks had been reported since the beginning of the year, compared to 289 over the same period in 2018, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that researches water pollution.
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The onset of fall will give the public a reprieve. But as the nation grapples with changing climate and a longer, warmer season, scientists are working to understand how to control this health threat.
An algal bloom occurs when a combination of heat and nutrients creates conditions for algae and cyanobacteria to thrive. The end of summer is particularly bad, and during August algae blooms plagued small towns and cities across the country, from New York City ponds to a lake in Austin, Texas, and the Russian River in California.
At a time when the place should have been teeming with water enthusiasts, the waters were still.
Even with this, he was grateful that science backed the decision to declare the water off limits, to keep people safe until the threat of potentially deadly toxins had vanished.
“We had the numbers and we knew what the unacceptable numbers were,” he said. “It was good to get a baseline.”
This summer’s unprecedented harmful algal bloom outbreak “closed” Utah Lake to public access, shut down marinas there and infected Payson Lakes as well as Scofield Reservoir.
You’ve likely seen the photos: pristine lake waters transformed into murky, toxic green sludge, the result of a blue-green algae bloom. You’ve probably also read the articles, about how several dog deaths have been attributed to blooms in North Carolina and Georgia, and about how the blooms are increasing in frequency as waters around the world continue to warm.
So could it happen here?
It could, but it hasn’t yet, said City of Ellsworth Watershed Steward John Wedin.
“Blue-green algae is endemic,” said Wedin. “The key thing is they haven’t bloomed in our lake because our nutrient levels are low. Phosphorus is the limiting nutrient, so phosphorus is the key thing to focus on.”
Wedin said that although he’s never seen a blue-green algae bloom in Branch Lake, he has seen annual metaphyton blooms, which look “like cotton candy.”
Metaphyton is an entirely different group of algae and doesn’t produce toxins, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Blue-green algae actually isn’t an algae at all — it’s actually cyanobacteria, a type of single-celled organism that is found naturally in all types of water, said Wedin.
When it “blooms,” blue-green algae grows to huge numbers, turning spots or entire water bodies particularly funky colors, from reddish brown to neon green. (One bloom in 2011 in Lake Erie could be seen from space.) It thrives in warm, still waters with high nitrogen and phosphorus levels.
With climate change and warming water, blooms are being seen increasingly farther north, including recently at a pond in South Portland.
“Every year has a different amount of rain, a different amount of nutrients, a different amount of heat,” said Public Works Director Lisa Sekulich. “All those things have to be ideal for a bloom to occur.”
This blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is no stranger to Lake Agawam. Since the state Department of Environmental Conservation began monitoring hundreds of lakes across New York in 2013, studying the more than 400 bodies the blooms have been detected in, none have experienced algal blooms more frequently than Southampton Village’s 40-acre body of water, which has seen the blooms present at least once per year since the record-keeping began.
Cleaning up the problem requires a complex solution, but the Cuomo administration and DEC might have at least a short-term solution of filtering the lake, which had the densest algal bloom ever recorded in Long Island waters.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos are shown how the mobile harvester technology works. Independ-ent/Courtesy Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office
As part of an $82-million comprehensive statewide initiative, a mobile harvester system, which separates algae from the surface of the water before returning clean water into the lake, has been installed in Lake Agawam. If the pilot project is successful, harvesters will be a statewide investment.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency wants to warn people about how dangerous it is not just for your pets, but your children as well.
The blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, has been popping up in some of Illinois’ lakes and streams.
The algae produces very quickly in the summer months due to the warm and humid weather.
The rapid growth of the algae, also referred to as a “bloom,” poses threats to the health of animals and humans.
“Anywhere you have a standing body of water like a pond or an inland waterway off the Illinois River where there’s not a lot of current, it should be something for concern,” said Michael Johnson, Director of Fondulac Park District.