Keeping Tabs on HABs

By Jared Mendenhall

Suzan with a sample
Utah DEQ Water Quality scientist, Suzan Tahir, monitors a potentially harmful algal bloom on Utah Lake.

It’s summer, and that means movie sequels. Star Wars, The Avengers, Jurassic Park and even Paddington Bear return to theaters with sequels this year.

Less entertaining is the return of harmful cyanobacteria blooms to Utah’s waterbodies.

Cyanobacteria occur naturally. When stagnant, nutrient-rich water warms up in the summer, it becomes the ideal breeding ground for these organisms—commonly known as blue-green algae. Under these circumstances, the bacteria can reproduce at alarming rates, overwhelm the water body and begin to produce dangerous toxins that can affect digestive organs and the nervous system—becoming a harmful algal bloom (HAB). Even in the absence of these toxins, the cyanobacteria can cause human-health concerns like gastrointestinal distress and skin irritation.

The scientists at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have been tasked with devising better and more effective techniques to detect and mitigate the risks to blooms. The Utah State Legislature is also helping out with funding for HAB monitoring and response.

Below are some of the ways that DEQ monitors these blooms.

Sonde Buoys

Utah Lake data buoy
One of three data buoys in Utah Lake

Sonde is a French word for instrument or probe. Real-time water-quality logging sondes are deployed on buoys in Utah Lake, Scofield Reservoir and Deer Creek Reservoir. The data from these instruments help the water quality scientists at DEQ monitor the signals if a cyanobacteria bloom is growing. DEQ monitors, maintains and calibrates these instruments. The public can view the data provided by these sondes here.

Satellite Imaging

The Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAN) is a multi-agency project that harnesses resources from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to process images to detect HABs from satellites. Using powerful algorithms, the images are processed to measure differences in the color spectrum to identify the severity and scope of a HAB. As the program is refined, scientists are hoping to deploy this technology around the state to more quickly spot HABS before they affect humans and livestock.

Rapid-Test Strips

Needless to say, immediate detection of toxins is one of the most important data elements points in helping local health departments and other response agencies determine whether appropriate precautions should take place for recreation, livestock watering, and irrigation. In an effort to ensure public safety, samples from HABs are now being tested with rapid-test strips. These strips detect the presence of cyanotoxins and provide local health departments and stakeholders with these crucial pieces of information.

Utah Water Watch

Utah Water Watch (UWW) is a water quality education and data collection program that seeks to increase awareness about the importance of water quality and promote stewardship of Utah’s aquatic resources. Its goal is to empower citizens to learn and share knowledge about their local watersheds and practice good stewardship. Data collected are shared in a public database and with local water managers. Utah Water Watch volunteers are trained to monitor for, sample and analyze potential harmful algal blooms. UWW is a free program and is open to volunteers of all ages. Volunteers learn more about water quality and help protect lakes and streams in Utah.

bloomWatch Mobile App

Screenshot: bloomWatch app

The bloomWatch mobile app is a free for IOS and Android users. It was developed to help track and document the occurrence of harmful algal blooms.

When app users come across a potential HAB, they can upload the location and a photo to water quality managers, and public health officials. The app effectively harnesses crowd-sourced data to track and manage water resources that the public depends on for potable water and recreation.

Search bloomWatch on Google Play or at the Apple App Store.

Citizen Science Aerial Monitoring

If you are a pilot and routinely fly over some of Utah’s at-risk waterbodies for HABs, you could provide critical data to DEQ. Pilots of small fixed-wing aircraft will be outfitted with a geospatial camera to collect aerial imagery over at-risk waterbodies. These images can be quickly processed to detect high concentrations of cyanobacteria at a much quicker speed and better resolution than satellite imagery. Please contact DEQ if you are interested to learn more.

As Utah and the rest of the country continue to deal with algal blooms, accurate and precise data are key to effectively safeguarding our water quality, protecting human health and supporting the state and local agencies addressing HABs.

For concerns about possible human exposure to a HAB, contact Utah Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222.
Jared Mendenhall

I am a public information officer for DEQ and a former marketer and magazine editor. Follow me on Instagram @Jarv801.