Algae blooming in waterways across country
Summer heat, part of problem
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Nationwide, 2016 seems the summer of algae.
News 6 partner Florida Today reported that the tiny plants are fouling water supplies and swimming holes from Florida to California, as record summer heat fuels toxic waters and blue-green algae.
Blue-green algae also is blanketing inland lakes and rivers throughout the country, feeding off farm and residential fertilizers, leaking sewage, El Niño's heavy winter, and spring rains, and now record summer heat. That's set the stage for a witch's brew of algae blooms this month in the southern Indian River Lagoon, as well as lakes and rivers in North Dakota, Minnesota, Utah, Southern California and Ohio, to name a few, prompting health warnings, beach closings, and swimming advisories.
"Certainly, in our case here the problem was exacerbated by the unusually wet winter and spring we had," said Brian Lapointe, a biologist with FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. "That's the pathway and the mechanism that gets the nutrients in the water. All these major bloom events we've had have followed heavy rain events."
A warmer world is making Florida's wet season less predictable, Lapointe said, and more prone to toxic algae outbursts that put water supplies at risk.
"With El Niño and climate change we're getting the delivery of nutrients at different times than when we'd normally see this happen," he said. "We see now these oscillating periods of heavy rains in the dry season."
A blue-green algae toxin, called microcystin, is linked with short and long-term health risks.
The toxin shut down Toledo's water supply or a few days in 2014 and has for years occasionally nagged at Melbourne and other Florida utilities that tap lake or river water.
Microcystin is toxic to fish, plants, invertebrates and mammals, including humans.
The toxin can magnify in mussels, crayfish, fish and crops irrigated with contaminated water.
Microcystin ingestion can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Swimming in water where the toxin is present can cause rashes. Microcystin has been linked with liver cancer in lab mice, but its long-term effects on humans are less certain.
Most tests sample the state has collected on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers have shown very low levels of microcystin.
But results from the week of July 11 showed an elevated toxin level of microcystin in Palm Beach County.
No federal regulations force water utilities to test for the same algae toxin that's been terrorizing South Florida's ecology and coastal dwellers.
But cities like Melbourne, Okeechobee, and others that tap lake or river water periodically test for microcystin, anyway.
News 6 partner Florida Today reported monthly tests of Lake Washington water — Melbourne's main drinking water supply — for the microcystin toxin in May, June and July were below detection limits in all of the tests.
Recent lab results also found several species of blue-green algae in the lake but none that had not reached bloom levels.
A study by the St. Johns River Water Management District in 2001 found microcystin loomed in some parts of Lake Washington at up to six times the level considered safe to drink.
"It's also common here in a lot of lakes here in Florida," said Ed Phillips, professor of algal physiology and ecology at the University of Florida. "Then it becomes a question of how much.... Boiling doesn't work."
Farm use of nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich fertilizers, poor water and land management practices and inadequate waste water treatment contributes to frequent algae blooms in fresh and marine waters.
The algae have caused beach closures in Cape Coral, St. Lucie County and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, the Utah County Health Department closed the Utah County section of the Jordan River, as well as several reservoirs, ponds and recreation areas, warning people not to drink or swim in the water or use it for lawns and gardens. The test showed trace levels of microcystin.
In August 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, issued a “do not drink or boil advisory” to almost 500,000 customers after microcystins in the city’s finished drinking water reached up to 2.5 micrograms per liter, due to an algae bloom in Lake Erie.
There are no state or federal guidelines for microcystin or many other blue-green algae toxins. The World Health Organization recommends that drinking water not exceed 1 microgram per liter (1 part per billion) of the toxin. Some samples in the 2001 study from Lake Washington tested more than six times that figure.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate the toxins, in 1998 the agency placed them on a list of potential contaminants that should be targeted for more research.
Microcystin is not the only algae toxin of concern in Florida.
In January a study by the Institute for EthnoMedicine, a nonprofit medical research organization, and the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank found chronic exposure to another commonplace algae toxin in crabs, shellfish and other seafood increases risk of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the study suggests.
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