By Donna Kemp Spangler
It was like a scene from Ghostbusters: a mysterious green ooze was bubbling up from a street drain in a Bluffdale neighborhood on July 21, prompting a social media frenzy that it was somehow connected to the harmful algal bloom that had engulfed Utah Lake and spread throughout the Jordan River system. Twitter commenters were calling on the “algaebusters” who happen to be city officials, environmental and health experts who later confirmed it had nothing to do with algae but rather a moss treatment recently added to the canal.
The green ooze was just the latest in a daily turn of events that had the public, along with local and state agencies on high alert. On July 13, a recreationist reported a massive, algal bloom in Utah Lake. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ) immediately dispatched a water quality crew to collect water samples that were analyzed by a local phycologist. The lab results showed concentrations of algal cells in the water three times the threshold considered to be an acute health risk by the World Health Organization. Satellite imagery recorded the harmful algal bloom, extending from Provo Bay to the State Park Harbor, covering 90 percent of Utah Lake.
The Utah Department of Health and Utah County Health Department immediately decided to close Utah Lake, the first extensive public closure recorded. Other agencies – State Parks and Recreation and Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) also weighed in with cautionary warnings. Further tests confirmed the presence of cyanobacteria in Jordan River and related canals that prompted Riverton City, and canal companies to shut off secondary water used for irrigation. Drinking water was never at risk because it comes from a different source.
Even so, the public understandably was concerned and confused, turning to DEQ for answers, and solutions. In truth, there was little DEQ could do – except continue to sample, observe and test, and let the bloom dissolve naturally. Unfortunately a zapper gun wasn’t going to do the trick.
Algal blooms are a natural occurrence. Under the right conditions they can proliferate. High levels of nutrients in the water, combined with warm temperatures, abundant sunlight and calm water can promote rapid growth, resulting in the extensive, bright-green, or blue-green blooms. Many algal species produce toxins that pose risks to humans, wildlife, domestic animals and fish. Since the closure of Utah Lake, more than 600 people called the Utah Poison Control Center, to report symptoms that include headache, fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and rashes or skin irritation.
The good news is the algal bloom appears to be subsiding. UDAF has lifted its advisories after the most recent set of tests found that concentrations of cyanobacteria in Utah and Jordan River have decreased, with the exceptions of Lincoln Harbor and American Fork Harbor, where counts continue to exceed the safety threshold of 100,000 cells per milliliter of water.
The bad news is this won’t be an isolated situation unless we address the source of the problem. Although algal blooms occur naturally, they are being intensified by human activity: urban runoff, fertilizer, and municipal sewer systems. Walt Baker, water quality director for DWQ points out: “Water quality, particularly nutrient enrichment, needs to be an integral part of our water infrastructure planning efforts to help prevent algal blooms that threaten recreation, irrigation, animals, aquatic wildlife and public health. Together, we can do this.”
Kudos to DEQ’s Water Quality response team that included Jake Vander Laan, Christopher Bittner, Jim Harris, Ben Holcomb, Scott Daly, Sandy Wingert, and Spills Coordinator Kevin Okleberry; Core Sampling Crew: Calah Worthen, Brent Shaw, Dan English, and Suzan Tahir; additional sampling by Ben Brown, Alex Anderson, Rob Bird, Marshall Baillie, and summer technician Ryan Parker; all under the leadership of Walt Baker, Erica Gaddis, and Jodi Gardberg. Communications team included Amy Christensen, Christine Osborne, Terry Davis, Jodie Swanson, and Pam Jacob. Daily updates are provided on our website.
I am the Communications Director for DEQ and a former reporter for the Deseret News. I write a monthly blog post. You can follow me on Twitter @deqdonna