Planning, Preparation Help DEQ Keep Tabs on HABs

By Suzan Tahir

Utah Lake algal bloom 2017

Some of you might have heard about harmful algal blooms (HABs), and some of you might not…yet. But HABs are happening nationwide, mostly in the warm summer months.

As you know, we have trillions of bacteria (good bacteria and bad bacteria) living in our gut (gastrointestinal tract), and they coexist until something upsets the balance, like bad milk. We can use the same simple analogy for HAB events. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) are simple organisms that live in the sea and freshwater bodies. Good and bad cyanobacteria live in a balance with other aquatic organisms and do not over-compete until something disturbs their balance, such as:

  • Lots of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus)
  • Calm and stagnant water column conditions
  • Warm water-column temperatures

That is when a small percentage of the “bad” cyanobacteria grow out of control, creating green scum on the water and sometimes producing toxins that can harm people and their pets. The question now becomes: Do we have them here in Utah? Sadly, yes! Utah Lake and Scofield Reservoir are two of the larger waterbodies that experienced HAB events in 2016, and smaller lakes, ponds, and streams experienced blooms as well.

How can we be more prepared and aware?

Over the past few years, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ) has been very proactive in finding ways to forecast and identify HAB events. Just like the air-quality monitoring network, DWQ’s early HAB forecasting approach combines real-time monitoring with meteorological data and sample analysis. How? We use a two-prong approach:

  • Collection of phytoplankton samples and cyanotoxin testing for HABs
  • Real-time ambient water-quality forecast for HABs using sondes (measuring devices)

DWQ currently uses a CB-450 Data Buoy system (water-quality monitoring network) for early HAB forecasting in Utah Lake, Scofield Reservoir, and Deer Creek Reservoir.

HABs forecasting system

Click on image to go to real time data on the Utah HAB Network

The data buoy system in Utah Lake is deployed at three different sites around the lake. DWQ selected these locations using the best available information to identify areas with the greatest potential for HABs. Because wind plays a very important role in the movement of blooms around Utah Lake, these sites are distributed along the east side of the lake to capture that movement.

Cyanobacteria growth and bloom production are dependent upon a number of factors, from temperature to nutrient levels in the water. The DWQ HAB Network is equipped with sensors that measure a range of water-quality parameters, including turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH, specific conductivity, water temperature, chlorophyll a, and phycocyanin. In combination, these parameters indicate and identify changes in cyanobacteria production and can act as an “early warning system” for blooms. The HAB Network streams this information every 15 minutes, providing us with real-time, ambient water-quality data.

Just like a weather forecast, when this early-HAB forecasting system is coupled with satellite imagery and field observations, it helps us identify where the HAB is, how big it is, and where it’s headed.

HABs information and education

However, conducting good science is not our only goal. We are here for you! Serving the public by providing exceptional service is one of our core values. DWQ works hard to protect and educate the public about HABs.

Because of its proximity to the Wasatch Front, Utah Lake may be one of the most frequently used waterbodies for recreational activities such as fishing, boating, water skiing, and swimming. Other lakes and reservoirs around the state are also popular spots for water-based fun. As we saw last summer, some of these places can also experience algal blooms.

We want people to be aware and cautious if the waterbody they use for their recreational activities looks too green, or looks and smells different. It is important to note that not all green areas have harmful algal blooms. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has compiled a photo gallery to help you identify possible HABs, but if you’re in doubt, it is better to be cautious and avoid such areas for your own safety. Be sure to obey posted advisories in areas that have tested high for cyanobacteria concentration or toxins.

DEQ’s HABs webpage provides a wealth of important information, including updates on recent HABs events, an FAQ sheet, and answers to your questions about the health effects of HABs, how to avoid exposure, and what to do if you are exposed or suspect a bloom.

HABs collaboration

Sampling Utah Lake

One of our primary field efforts is to encourage, initiate, and maintain collaborations and coordination with other agencies and organizations. We work together on HABs response and communications with a variety of state and local agencies to make sure anyone who might be affected by a bloom — whether it’s the boater recreating on a lake or the rancher delivering water to his cattle — has accurate, up-to-date information.

We are also teaming with other scientific groups to gather information. These kinds of collaborations eliminate duplication of efforts and result in better science. In late June 2017, DWQ initiated a collaborative effort with Associate Professor Zachary Aanderud and members of his laboratory at Brigham Young University (BYU). Dr. Aanderud’s team volunteered to monitor the three CB-450 Data Buoy sites on DWQ’s behalf, collecting the following samples on weekly basis to confirm the data we’re receiving from the buoy reflects actual conditions for:

Limited resources make it difficult for DWQ to collect samples more frequently than our scheduled once-a month sampling, even during a bloom. The BYU team’s work enhances and supplements DWQ’s sampling to ensure that we have the most comprehensive data possible.

One of three data buoys in Utah Lake

HABs and you

We work hard to identify HABs to protect you, your family, and your animals from the adverse health effect of these blooms. But we can’t be everywhere, so we can always use your help! Call us if you suspect a bloom, and when in doubt, avoid any contact with water and scums that appear to experiencing an algal bloom. We want you to have a safe and fun summer recreating on our beautiful lakes and streams!

If you suspect a harmful algal bloom, please call the 24-hour DEQ Spill Line at (801) 536-4123. If you believe you’re experiencing symptoms form exposure, contact the Utah Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222. Pet owners concerned about their animals should contact their veterinarian. Visit for updates, advisories, and information.

In 2003, I received my Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering degree from Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey). In 2007, I received my Master of Science degree from Bradley University, Illinois. In 2008, I moved to Utah and have been with DEQ/DWQ for almost seven years now. Currently, I am working towards my PhD degree at Utah State University. If I do not travel and drive for my work, I normally like to drive and take trips to enjoy nature, cultures, cities, and wilderness. I also have a very deep passion for hiking, white water rafting, rock climbing, backpacking, scuba diving, Huskies, and Akitas. I was born and raised in Bulgaria, have lived in different countries, and currently live in Salt Lake City. I love my job a lot, because we are like a huge family helping and supporting each other and our communities!