Summer is a time for fun and especially for fun in the water. Whether it’s swimming, boating or playing on the beach, summer is a popular time for all things water-related.
It all seems so wonderful and simple, but there is a growing problem at beaches across the nation: a green-colored slime floating on the surface of the water know as algae blooms.
Algae blooms can look bad, can smell even worse and are a problem from Florida to the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast, the Red Tides in California and even on lakes and ponds in Utah.
Algae is one of the lowest members on the world’s food chain. The dictionary defines algae as “Any of various green, red, or brown organisms that grow mostly in water, ranging in size from single cells to large spreading seaweeds.”
Like other plants, algae can manufacture it’s own food through photosynthesis and release large amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere.
There is cause for concern since some algae contains toxins which can be harmful to people and animals. In October of 2014, two dogs reportedly died shortly after they were in the water at Utah Lake near Provo.
A news release on October 9, 2014 by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality reported that Utah Lake had tested positive for the presence of toxins.
“Division of Wildlife Resources have issued warnings to swimmers, boaters, anglers, and hunters to avoid areas with bright-green algal growth,” said the report.
“Elevated levels of nutrients in the water, combined with the warm temperatures, abundant sunlight and calm water can promote rapid algal growth, resulting in the extensive, bright-green booms,” the director of the Utah Department of Water Quality, Walt Baker, said.
Baker added that naturally occurring phosphorous and phosphorous releases from wastewater treatment plans are a major contributor to algae development.
Algae can grow at a rapid rate and cover entire areas of small lakes and ponds which can cut off sunlight to plants and the oxygen needed to support fish. The rotting blue-green algae mats can smell like rotten eggs, or what Baker called the ‘yuk factor’ of algae blooms.
“It is very difficult to predict and assess harmful algae blooms. But what we can control is one of the major contributing factors to algae blooms: nutrients, principally phosphorus,” Baker said.
In recent years, state and federal required modifications to wastewater treatment plants have helped to reduce the amount of the phosphorous load being added to local stream and lakes.
According to Baker, 75 percent of the phosphorous found in Utah Lake in 2014 came from wastewater treatment plants around and upstream of the lake. Since then, those treatment plants have made progress towards reducing the phosphorous and nitrogen loads they contribute to local waters.
Algae blooms are not uncommon on lakes in Utah. As the weather gets warmer during the summer and lakes become shallower, more blooms, toxic or not, can be expected, especially on Utah Lake, the Great Salt Lake and in Farmington Bay.
Keep in mind that not all algae blooms are toxic. But if you do come across a mat of blue-green algae floating on the water it is best to avoid it.
So, yes, algae blooms are a cause for reasonable concern, but, by being observant and careful, algae can be more of a nuisance than a reason to stay out of the water this summer.