Agencies make blue-green algae information available in Oklahoma
BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
7/03/12 at 7:10 AM
Find information on blue-green
algae levels and
other lake conditions
than 200 lakes
Find a variety of information
about conditions at lakes in the
Tulsa District of the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers.
Review test results on bluegreen
algae levels at key lakes
managed by the Tulsa District of
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Boaters and swimmers headed to Oklahoma lakes for the Fourth of July should be prepared to see blue and green in addition to the traditional red, white and blue.
A new state law requires managers of recreational lakes and reservoirs to post signs at major access points notifying the public about how to find water-quality test results for blue-green algae and other contaminants. The law requires the Oklahoma Tourism Department to publish test results on a new website and the state Health Department to provide materials to health professionals about the potentially toxic microorganism.
However, the law - signed by Gov. Mary Fallin on May 24 - prohibits lake managers from issuing advisories for blue-green algae unless tests show a level that poses at least a moderate risk of illness. That level is set by the World Health Organization.
Blue-green algae is present in nearly all lakes, but in some conditions, it can bloom and produce toxins that can cause serious health problems in humans and animals. Symptoms range from eye and skin irritation to vomiting and dizziness.
It poses a particular risk to children and animals and can even lead to death in animals.
Last summer, the Grand River Dam Authority considered closing Grand Lake after tests found high levels of toxic algae. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe added to the public alarm when he said he became "deathly sick" after swimming in the algae in Grand Lake.
GRDA spokesman Justin Alberty said that before the warnings were issued last summer, many Oklahomans were unaware of the potential threat posed by blue-green algae toxins.
"Having gone through what we went through last summer, we have a little better idea of how to handle it; it's education," he said. "There was probably not enough education last year."
Some critics, including Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, said the algae warnings set off a panic and harmed the area's economy. Cox, an emergency room doctor at Integris Grove General Hospital, is the author of the new law.
Recent algae test results at individual sites on four Oklahoma lakes managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Eufaula, Tenkiller, Fort Gibson and Texoma - were higher than the advisory threshold of 100,000 cells per milliliter.
Three of the sites were Porum Landing at Eufaula, Rocky Point Beach at Fort Gibson and Elk Creek at Tenkiller. Five sites tested above the advisory level at Lake Texoma: Treasure Island, Johnson Creek, Little Glasses Creek, the U.S. 377/Oklahoma 99 Bridge and Sheppard Annex.
Recent test results at 14 sites on Grand Lake, which is managed by the GRDA, showed levels below the advisory threshold.
Alberty said lake conditions "are in a lot better shape right now. We are not seeing the (algae) levels that we were seeing last year at this time."
GRDA representatives were part of a working group that helped shape the new public education law.
"We are just happy to be a part of it," Alberty said. "I think it's great that it's (the information is) all in one spot. It will cut down on misinformation."
GRDA has an extensive water-quality testing system, with a lab and 14 testing sites on Grand Lake, eight on Lake Hudson and three on the W.R. Holway Reservoir, also known as Chimney Rock Lake. The GRDA uses floating monitors above and below the Pensacola Dam on Grand Lake to test quality from the top to the bottom of the lake.
Besides testing for blue-green algae, the GRDA measures turbidity, dissolved oxygen, bacteria and other indicators of water quality. Test results on blue-green algae are provided to the Tourism Department under the new law, and an interactive map is being developed for the GRDA website to present all water-quality data.
At recreational lakes managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, a similar effort is under way to educate the public about blue-green algae, said Nate Herring, public affairs specialist. The corps manages 28 lakes and recreational areas in Oklahoma with nearly 70 swimming beaches.
Although testing for all water-quality indicators is the state's responsibility, Herring said the corps tests for blue-green algae and E. coli because they affect recreation, a corps mission. Data are provided to the Tourism Department and to the public at sites, he said.
"There's not necessarily a steadfast rule, but if it (algae) is high enough that it causes a concern to the lake manager, then they hand out these fliers. ... If the levels are high enough, they may close a swim beach."
The corps' slogan about blue-green algae warns: "If it's green on top, stop." Blue-green algae can bloom quickly and then dissipate depending on weather and other conditions, Herring noted.
"As you can see in some of the data, it's kind of unpredictable. That's why its important if people see any scum or discoloration of the water to avoid it."
Blue-green algae facts
What is blue-green algae?
Blue-green algae (BGA) are microscopic organisms that can live in lakes, ponds and streams. Although BGA are usually at levels too low to affect the health, "blooms" occur in certain conditions and can endanger people and animals.
What causes BGA to bloom?
BGA multiply quickly in warm weather, in stagnant water and with the addition of some chemicals to the water, such as nitrogen from fertilizer. Not all blooms can be seen with the naked eye, and you cannot tell if a BGA bloom is toxic by looking at it.
What does BGA look like?
Most blooms look like a mat of scum on the surface of the water and shore. The scum can be a range of shades, including blue and green or red and brown. Some BGA blooms occur several feet below the water's surface.
Is BGA dangerous?
Some BGA are harmless, while some produce toxins that can affect the skin, gastrointestinal tract, nerves and liver. You can't tell the difference by looking. The toxins produced by BGA can cause upper respiratory problems, eye irritation, vomiting and diarrhea. Avoid all body contact where BGA are present. People who come into contact with water containing BGA should seek medical assistance. Pets and children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of BGA. If your pet is exposed, contact your veterinarian or an emergency animal clinic.
What are the symptoms of exposure to toxic BGA?
BGA produce nerve and liver toxins. Symptoms of the nerve toxins include tingling in fingers and toes, numbness in the lips and dizziness in humans. In animals, neurotoxin poisoning can cause weakness, staggering, difficulty in breathing, convulsions and death. Liver toxins can take hours or days to appear and can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting in humans and death in animals.
How can I avoid contact with BGA?
If possible, swim in a regulated beach area where authorities will post advisories on BGA and other safety issues. After swimming in a lake, people should shower and wash thoroughly and bathe pets that have been exposed to the water. Oklahoma lakes are monitored for BGA levels, and advisories are generally issued if the level exceeds 100,000 cells per milliliter.
To report BGA, contact the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality at 1-800-522-0206.
Source: Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department
Original Print Headline: Watching the bloom
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
Kaitlyn Lunk, an intern with the Grand River Dam Authority, hauls a water-collecting device into a boat on Grand Lake near the Pensacola Dam on Monday. The GRDA monitors water quality in all its lakes and uses floating monitors above and below the Pensacola Dam. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
GRDA intern Michael Willhoite lowers a water-testing device into Grand Lake on Monday. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World