Health officials need more funds to keep toxic algal blooms out of Utah waters

Thursday , September 28, 2017 - 5:15 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

When a harmful algal bloom popped up in Ogden’s 21st Pond this month — the first known at the water body — it served as a stark reminder that Utah waters are increasingly under threat.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality reports eight documented waterbodies plagued by algal blooms this year, compared to six in 2016. Along with the Ogden pond, they included the often-beleaguered Utah Lake and Jordan Rivers, as well as Mantua Reservoir, Rockport Reservoir, Deer Creek Reservoir, Upper Box Creek Reservoir and Matt Warner Reservoir.

The blooms produce algal and cyanobacteria toxins that are a triple-threat, harmful to humans, animals and the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all warn blooms are on the rise throughout the nation. 

So it might come as a surprise that there’s no funding for regular testing and monitoring of algal blooms in Utah’s waterbodies. 

“We’re trying to limp our way through this,” said Ben Holcomb with the Utah Division of Water Quality. “Sometimes I feel like I’m donating my time. Other projects are being delayed.”

Holcomb’s job is to do biological assessments on all the state’s waters — he makes sure ponds, streams, lakes and rivers throughout the state meet Utah Water Quality and U.S. Clean Water Act standards. But during the summer, he has to put much of his work aside to coordinate efforts for algal blooms.

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More harmful blooms are being detected in the state due to more vigilance, Holcomb said, and changes in the environment. Utahns can expect more toxic blooms in the future because of a warming climate and growing nutrient loads flowing to waterbodies. Algae and cyanobacteria thrive in sunny, stagnant, nutrient-dense water.

“Anywhere we’re having human development around or near water resources, we have impacts — excess nutrients are going into water and that leads to higher productivity,” Holcomb said. “We’re certainly seeing less intense winters, so that means shorter winters, shorter duration of ice cover and earlier springs where water can begin to warm.”

In 2016, 504 people called Utah Poison Control after recreating at Utah Lake during a harmful algal bloom. About a third reported symptoms commonly linked to the toxins those blooms produce, like eye irritation, rashes, nausea and vomiting. 

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“I always question how much worse it could have been if the lake hadn’t been closed or had an advisory on it,” Holcomb said. 

That same year, a bloom in Scofield Reservoir killed scores of fish and dozens of bats.

The following legislative session, the Division of Water Quality appealed for $123,000 to recover costs spent on past algal bloom work and to set up a permanent monitoring program. The request fell low on the Utah Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee priority list and ultimately was never funded.

The division managed to cobble together a $100,000 grant from the EPA and the state water quality board in 2016 to install buoys in Utah Lake, Scofield Reservoir and Deer Creek Reservoir. They beam real-time data back to an interactive website.

The division bought toxin testing strips with the leftover funds and gave them to local health departments. They need regular funding, however, to pay for lab analysis, more testing strips and staff to help coordinate statewide efforts at all the at-risk waters throughout the state.

For now, much of the algal bloom work in Utah’s vulnerable waters largely falls to local health departments. But even those health officials are understaffed and under-funded when it comes to keeping an eye on waterbodies. 

In the case of the 21st Street Pond, Weber-Morgan Health Department staff only learned about it from a citizen complaint.

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“Someone had noticed it looked funny and smelled funny, so we sent out an inspector,” said Michela Gladwell, director of environmental health for the department. 

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Her division conducts regular sampling on the three waterbodies humans commonly use for recreation — Pineview, Causey and East Canyon reservoirs. They’ll likely add the 21st Street Pond, however, since area residents walk their dogs there.

At the Bear River Health Department, officials still mostly rely on the Utah Division of Water Quality to test and report harmful algal blooms. That’s lead to some headaches, especially with this year’s bloom in Mantua. The state found toxins, but Brigham City and Mantua officials only found out after they saw warning signs posted at the reservoir.

“We assumed that since (the division) was doing all the testing and reading of samples ... they had covered the bases with city officials,” said Grant Koford, director of environmental health. “They thought we had, but we haven’t really been involved.”

Koford would like the health department to become more involved in regular algal blooms monitoring within his jurisdiction, but that money would have to come from federal grants or state appropriations. Koford doesn’t see that happening. 

“It’s a great idea, it needs to be done, but we don’t have the staff or funding to do it,” he said. 

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The Division of Water Quality is also relying heavily on volunteers. A partnership between NOAA and Utah State University Extension’s Utah Water Watch has assembled a team of citizen scientists who regularly collect samples at vulnerable waterbodies. 

A Utah Water Watch volunteer discovered this year’s bloom at Mantua.

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“We are trying to grow that network,” said Ellen Bailey with Utah Water Watch. “(We) want someone out there every two weeks, taking a sample, looking under a microscope. They can see as (algae) increases, when it appears and how long it’s there.”

Bailey admits it’s hard to find people willing to visit lakes, ponds and reservoirs every two weeks. That data, however, is important since there’s not much health officials can do once a bloom appears apart from warning people to stay out. Public health officials need that data as rapidly as possible to make decisions.

“There’s aquatic life in there we’ve got to protect. We can’t just go in there and nuke the pond or lake,” Holcomb said. “Globally, there’s no silver bullet for these things. Prevention is the route.”

Holcomb and the Division of Water Quality plan to ask for harmful algal bloom funding again at the next session of the Utah Legislature. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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