Sep 23, 2012

In summer, blue-green algae blooms plague freshwater can be toxic People and dogs

Center for Investigative Reporting...cyanobacteria can produce toxins that cause asthmalike, severe vomiting or diarrhea, or irritated skin or eyes. As in the Jenkins case, some of the toxins also act on the liver; this might also lead to cancer, if people are exposed over long periods of time. People and animals encounter the toxins when they swallow or swim in contaminated water or inhale water droplets suspended in air, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Danny Jenkins’ experience is among the most serious to have been reported, though experts agree that many cases go unreported or are misidentified. The same year Jenkins fell ill, a YMCA camp on another Ohio lake closed its beach after 19 campers and staff became sick with stomach problems. Last summer, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., reported stomach illness after swimming in Grand Lake, Okla., during a bloom. In Wisconsin alone, 98 people have reported illness from blue-green algae exposure over the past three years.

Dog deaths are all too common. Five dogs died after exposure to blue-green algae in a Kansas lake last year, and five died in Ohio in 2010. Dogs are particularly susceptible because they gulp water and often lick algae off their fur after a swim. Earlier this summer in Marion County, Kan., a rancher lost 22 cattle: They drank from a farm pond laden with a type of cyanobacteria that produces neurotoxins, according to a veterinarian involved in the case.

The blooms also repel tourists, harming summer vacation businesses around affected lakes. On Lake Petenwell, a large manmade lake in central Wisconsin, Tom Koren, owner of a marina, restaurant and bar called The Lure Bar & Grill, has seen the number of boat slips he rents fall by half.

“Typically, a bay like the marina will be caked from one shore to the other, solid green with iridescent blue, up to 6 inches thick,” said Koren, who co-founded a group called the Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards, which aims to improve water quality on local lakes. “You’ll see squirrels walking on it.”

“People will come in and request their money back and take their boat elsewhere,” he added.

When cyanobacteria bloom in reservoirs that supply drinking water, they can clog pipes or poison the water. Utilities might have to truck in water or add extra treatment. When Lake Erie experienced its record-setting blooms last year, the city of Toledo was forced to spend an extra $3,000 to $4,000 a day treating the drinking water it drew from the lake. Even when large blooms aren’t present, nontoxic “taste and odor” compounds produced by the algae can give water a dirty taste. Wichita, Kan., spent several million dollars to add ozone treatment for the water it uses from Cheney Reservoir, where elevated levels of cyanobacteria are a regular occurrence.

Studies show that mixing fertilizer into the soil can reduce runoff by 50 percent and that no-till farming, in which plowing is minimized, can reduce sediment runoff by a third, Reutter said. Drainage from tiled fields also must be managed so that it doesn’t pollute waterways, he said.

“There isn’t any one particular strategy that is going to solve this problem for every farm,” said Tom Quinn, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “But each farm has a set of things that they should be doing to protect the water around them and to protect their own soil.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Dunn County, which includes Lake Menomin and Tainter Lake, both notorious for their blooms, just passed a controversial ordinance requiring all waterfront property, including agricultural lands, to maintain an unmowed 35-foot-deep buffer strip along the water’s edge – a key strategy, experts agree, to soak up the runoff before it reaches the water. In addition, Wisconsin recently passed legislation to control phosphorus.

“We know what it takes to fix this stuff,” said Patrick “Buzz” Sorge of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “We just have to find the social and political will to get this done.”

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