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Protect Yourself from Harmful Algal Blooms this Summer

Photo of a man waterskiing on Utah Lake

Enjoying Utah’s rivers, reservoirs and lakes are an important part of summer recreation in the state. Photo courtesy of Scott Chipman.

By DEQ Communications Staff

As warmer weather returns to Utah, residents are advised to take steps to protect themselves from harmful algal blooms and waterborne pathogens while recreating on the water. The Beehive State boasts outstanding rivers, reservoirs and lakes. On a hot day, few things satisfy like jumping in one of these waterbodies. Whether it’s waterskiing, swimming or kayaking, getting wet is one of the top ways to pass the time during the summer months.

Water recreation, however, isn’t without its risks. Some of those risks include cyanobacteria blooms and waterborne pathogens.

Cyanobacteria blooms, or harmful algal blooms, and waterborne pathogens pose health risks and can put a damper on fun summer plans. This year, Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Division of Water Quality (DWQ) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) want to remind recreators to take steps to protect themselves while on the water.

“There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of harmful algal blooms. These include weather patterns, temperature and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water,” said Division of Water Quality Director Erica Gaddis. “Before boating, swimming or fishing, be sure to check water conditions.”

Harmful algal blooms occur when stagnant, nutrient-rich water warms up in the summer and becomes the ideal breeding ground for cyanobacteria — commonly known as blue-green algae. Under these circumstances, the bacteria can reproduce quickly, overwhelm the waterbody and in some cases produce skin, liver and nervous system toxins.

Harmful algal blooms may look like pea soup, green or blue paint, or have a scum layer or mats/foam floating on the surface. The water may also appear in shades of green, blue-green, yellow, brown or red.

Waterborne pathogens are bacteria, viruses and parasites that can occasionally be found in Utah waters. These waterborne pathogens can cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, fever and rashes. People can be exposed to these pathogens if they swallow water when they swim or eat food without washing their hands first.

The Division of Water Quality and local health departments sample waterbodies for waterborne pathogens throughout the recreation season (May to October) to keep the public, local health departments and other stakeholders informed of current conditions. DWQ posts updates on sampling results and health advisories as soon as the information becomes available at ecoli.utah.gov.

Due to state budget uncertainty, DWQ cannot monitor, sample or provide updates for harmful algal blooms on Utah waterbodies until at least July 1, 2020.

Because cyanobacteria blooms can appear quickly — sometimes in hours — and shift locations based on weather conditions, water recreators are asked to avoid:

  • Water that resembles spilled paint, antifreeze or grass clippings
  • Surface scum or film
  • Discolored or streaking water
  • Green globs on or below the surface of the water

Utah’s waters offer unparalleled recreational opportunities and are generally safe. Water recreators, however, can take a few simple steps to protect themselves, their families and their pets while enjoying Utah’s waters:

  • Don’t swallow water when swimming
  • Avoid areas of scum when boating
  • Wash hands with clean water before eating or preparing food
  • When fishing, clean fish well and discard the guts
  • Don’t let pets drink from scummy water

For concerns about possible human exposure, call your physician or the Utah Poison Control at 800-222-1222. For concerns about possible animal exposure, contact a local veterinarian. For concerns about possible livestock exposure, contact the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food at 801-538- 7100.

To learn more about harmful algal blooms, visit habs.utah.gov.