State preparing for return of harmful algal blooms on Utah lakes
SALT LKE CITY, Utah – As the weather warms up, and people head out to play on Utah’s lakes and reservoirs, the state has begun preparations for the likely return of harmful algal blooms.
Each of the last two summers ugly, toxic algal blooms have invaded Utah Lake and other reservoirs and lakes across the state, forcing people out of the water. More than a dozen state and local agencies got together Thursday to plan to respond to algal blooms if they develop this summer.
It’s hard to predict or forecast algal blooms. Recent history tells Utah water scientists they’re likely to see the slimy green ooze again this summer.
“We’re prepared to handle whatever comes to us,” said Ben Holcomb, program coordinator of the Harmful Algal Blooms Program in the Utah Division of Water Quality. “It’s increasing every year.”
After two years of harmful algal blooms that shut down recreation on Utah Lake and several other lakes, the Division of Water Quality has better prepared to battle the blooms this summer.
“Every year we improve,” said Holcomb.
They have more knowledge, more tools, and more money to attack the problem this year than they did when an algal bloom exploded in several days to 90 percent of Utah Lake in 2016.
“Testing is a lot quicker, more accurate, and it is becoming more widespread,” Holcomb said.
Two years ago, they had to send water samples to Florida for testing. Today, there are several labs that can do that kind of testing locally in a few days.
Thursday’s meeting saw more than a dozen agencies get together to plan a coordinated response in the event of an algal bloom this summer.
“It’s really an all hands on deck kind of thing when a bloom comes in,” said Jodi Gardberg, who oversees the Harmful Algal Bloom Program for the Division of Water Quality.
They now use satellite imagery and buoys in the lakes to identify pigments and toxins in the wat to identify blooms sooner. They still count on the public to alert them when they see algal blooms.
“We’re more educated, we have better tools, and the science is emerging so that we as a state can do a better response,” said Gardberg.
The legislature also gave them $178,000 for sampling and analyzing algal blooms. One-third of that money goes to local health departments, which alert the public when algal blooms are discovered on specific waterways.
“Each year we get better,” said Gardberg.
“The first and foremost goal is to protect public health. Then also to protect the use, the environment, the water, and how it is utilized,” said Barbara Crouch, executive director of the Utah Poison Control Center.
Two years ago, more than 700 people called the Utah Poison Control hotline with health issues related to the blooms. Last year there were 200 calls.
“About a third of the people that have contacted us actually have adverse effects,” said Crouch.
They reported symptoms like skin rashes, eye irritation, and vomiting.
“Children are at greater risk because they tend to spend a lot more time in the water,” said Crouch.
So are pets, she added. They may splash around in the toxic blooms, and even drink the water.
Each agency that responds to the harmful algal blooms has contributed to the growing body of data and adding to the collective knowledge about them. The more data they gather, the more they can understand the health impacts and environmental impacts from the harmful toxins.
“Learning more about adverse health effects and being able to warn the public in a more expeditious manner,” said Crouch.
Algal blooms are not just a Utah problem.
“Nationally, and even globally, they are increasing in their magnitude and their duration,” said Holcomb. “These organisms are occurring earlier in the year and becoming more dominant.”
Last year, the first algal bloom arrived on Utah Lake in June. This year, with lower water levels and warmer water, the water scientists point out conditions are primed for another bloom.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has a web page dedicated to harmful water blooms so you can check out the conditions on a lake near you.
You can find out more about the science and what’s going on in the water near you at habs.utah.gov.
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