Excess nutrient pollution in waterbodies can lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs), more accurately known as harmful cyanobacteria blooms (HCBs). These blooms occur when normally occurring cyanobacteria in the water multiply quickly to form visible colonies or blooms. HABs sometimes produce potent cyanotoxins that can pose serious health risks to people, pets, livestock, and wildlife and harm the ecological health of surface waters.
In 2018, HABs were reported and identified at 25 Utah waterbodies. Given the statewide nature of the blooms and limited resources for sampling, additional blooms may have gone unreported. Several reservoirs registered toxin levels that exceeded the highest levels recorded in previous years.
DWQ led a collaborative, multi-entity response to these blooms, conducting and coordinating extensive sampling to track bloom progress, identifying cyanobacteria species responsible for individual blooms, analyzing cyanobacteria cell concentrations, testing for cyanotoxins, charting trends, working with stakeholders, and keeping the public informed of changing conditions.
One-time funding of $178,000 from Utah Legislature in 2018 provided DWQ and local health departments (LHDs) with resources to respond more quickly to HABs, increase sampling frequency for at-risk waters, and boost statewide monitoring. DWQ hired additional seasonal staff to collect sampling data, conduct pre-screening toxin analysis, respond to blooms, and conduct follow-up sampling. LHDs received toxin-screening test kits for on-shore sampling and worked closely with DWQ on collaborative sampling schedules to avoid duplicative efforts.
DWQ provided state and local agencies, particularly local health departments, with critical sampling test results to assist these entities in making important human-health decisions about lake closures, secondary-water usage, and allowable recreational uses of affected waterbodies.
This bloom season was remarkable for the high number of bloom sites, Warning Advisories, and the incidence of cyanobacteria blooms at cold, high-elevation lakes and reservoirs.
Success Story: Collaboration with Local Health Departments
The authority to post health advisories and close water bodies lies with Utah’s local health departments (LHDs). The Utah Department of Health (DOH) and DEQ’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ) prepared Recreational Health Advisory Guidance to assist LHDs with the issuance of advisories when a bloom is confirmed on a water body within their jurisdiction. Collaboration and cooperation between DWQ and LHDs ensure the timely communication of potential health impacts from harmful algal blooms (HABs) to the public.
DWQ met with LHD Environmental Health Officers in late January 2018 to discuss ways to strengthen DEQ’s partnership with LHDs for HABs events. Four major goals emerged from these discussions:
- Immediate notification of reported blooms, sample results, and exceedances of the recreation health-based advisory thresholds
- Better press coordination and prior notification of media releases to LHD public information officers (PIOs)
- Availability of test kits and water-sample supplies for LHDs
- Reimbursement to LHDs for their work in the program
DWQ incorporated these goals into its HABs Program, and most were met or partially met by the time of the HAB Response Workshop in May 2018. The following measures helped DWQ meet these goals:
- The DEQ Spill Line Incident Report System was expanded to provide LHDs with early notification of bloom reports.
- PIOs from DEQ and LHDs discussed and approved collaborative media outreach and internal communication protocols.
- Each LHD attending the 2018 HAB Response Workshop received two test kits for cyanotoxin screening. Participating LHDs later received a HAB response kit with all necessary sample collection, safety, and testing supplies
- One-time funds from the 2018 Utah Legislature provided reimbursement to LHDs for HABs sampling and associated costs.
DWQ sent a year-end feedback survey on the HABs program to LHDs in November 2018. Survey results showed enthusiastic support for the improvements made this year. The division recognizes there are still areas that could be strengthened, and DWQ will continue to work with LHDs to address concerns with the current process and strengthen its partnerships with LHDs to ensure the health and safety of Utah residents and the environment.
“I believe the collaboration between all of the agencies has improved. 2018 was much better than the previous year in all aspects of the program. There is still concern over the sampling and initial notification procedures (DEQ staff sampling without notification that samples are being submitted for HAB analysis), but once the HAB was identified, I feel the line of communication has improved. Additionally, I like that DWQ stepped back and let us produce the press releases, then shared what we put out. This is a much better process for us. When the LHDs are allowed to create their own press releases, they can ensure everything within their jurisdiction is ready to go and the stakeholders, like the County Manager, Board of Health, and County Council, are aware and informed before the media gets wind. This is a great way of ensuring the LHD’s are prepared for what is to come following the press release and that everyone is in the know.”
– Phil, Summit County
“Communication, coordination, and outreach with DEQ has been very good. The website is a great dashboard for all of us to know when is going on. We used all of our test kits and were able to get more strips.”
– Teresa Gray, Salt Lake County Health Department.
HABs Strategic Communication Committee
In 2015, DWQ organized a HABs Strategic Communication Committee in response to the increase in bloom events in Utah. Representatives from state agencies and stakeholder groups meet monthly to discuss external and internal communications. The committee has developed outreach campaigns to educate the public about health risks from HABs, discussed agency HAB-response messaging, expanded the 24-hour DEQ Spills Line to include bloom reports, fine-tuned the decision-making matrix for the issuance of health advisories at affected waterbodies, and worked on permanent signage for Utah Lake.
Utah was one of two states selected to present its HABs Risk Communication Strategy during a spring webinar sponsored by the Environmental Council of States (ECOS) and was one of seven states invited to participate in a HABs Risk Communication Case Study conducted by ECOS.
DWQ also hosted a HABs workshop in May 2018 that brought together a variety of stakeholder groups to discuss Utah’s response to HAB events. The workshop included presentations, group exercises, and panel discussions. Participants had the opportunity to talk with colleagues from other agencies and exchange useful information. Workshop highlights included:
- Report on the DWQ HABs Response Plan
- Response coordination (exercise)
- HABs messaging (group exercise)
- Discussion of monitoring resources and activities
- Best practices for HAB collection and delivery
- Explanation of cyanotoxin lab analysis
- Guidance for drinking-water facilities
The groundwork laid by the Strategic Communication Committee, coupled with feedback during the workshop, facilitated effective agency responses and coordination during the 2018 bloom season. The committee will continue to build on “lessons learned” this summer to improve communication with the public and facilitate coordination with LHDs, state agencies, and stakeholders.