AUSTIN, Texas — Summer is officially here and that means so is toxic algae.
Since the recent spike in harmful blue-green algae was linked to several dog deaths, the City of Austin announced it is ramping up its response and considering a new technique to get rid of it.
While the recent spike in toxic algae in Austin is making headlines, this is not an isolated incident.
The EPA reports that harmful algae blooms, or HABs, are increasing nationwide, and scientists are scrambling to find long-term solutions to this growing problem.
However, some environmental activists think the government is not doing enough.
Bill Moriarty is passionate about clean water. It has been his life’s work. He is a former water facilities engineer and is now a member of the City of Austin Waste and Wastewater Commission.
“It seems that the problem is getting worse, not better,” Moriarty said.
His home in West Austin is just a short drive from Red Bud Isle, a popular dog park and ground zero for the first documented toxic algae dog death in Austin in 2019.
Signs are posted at sites where tests have found toxic algae, like Red Bud Isle. They caution dog owners to avoid contact with the algae. Moriarty said he’s concerned about the risks for humans, especially children.
“I think it would be harmful to anybody, but the smaller body weight would possibly result in more serious problems,” he said.
The EPA describes toxic algae blooms as harmful to the environment, animals and humans. Ingesting these toxins can cause liver and kidney damage, and recreational exposure can lead to gastrointestinal issues, rashes and fever-like symptoms. You can also be exposed to toxic algae, even when blooms are not visible.
There have been no documented reports of humans or children getting sick from toxic algae exposure.
“It’s only been around for a couple years and do we know if someone hasn’t been harmed?” Moriarty asked. “How diligent are people about reporting these things to the city?”
Not all algae are toxic, and you can’t always tell if algae are toxic by looking at them.
If they are toxic, it doesn’t mean they are toxic all the time. It depends on nutrient levels, temperature and water flow.
There are different kinds of toxic algae, but blue-green algae are the most common.
A neurotoxin was found in the Austin area and is considered highly poisonous as it killed several dogs in 2019 and in February of this year. But there’s little research on its health effects in humans.
Scientists are further researching chronic toxicity as well as cancer in humans and animals exposed to HABs. Studying toxic algae is a full-time job for environmental scientist Dr. Brent Bellinger. He works for the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department.
When Spectrum News 1 caught up with him, he was at Lady Bird Lake collecting water samples, monitoring water conditions and deploying data loggers.
“When the algae is present and when they go toxic, then we can put all of this data into a model and determine, you know, what are the set of conditions that promote that algae growth,” Dr. Bellinger said.
This information will help the city determine long-term solutions to combat nutrient pollution.
EPA data show toxic algae blooms are increasing because of fossil fuels, sewage and wastewater, and fertilizer and industrial factories. There are about 15,000 water bodies in the U.S. with nutrient-related problems.
Reports of drinking water violations for nitrates have nearly doubled in the last decade. In this evaluation, the EPA determined “nutrient pollution is one of America’s most serious water pollution issues today.”
Despite all of this, the CDC reports there are no federal guidelines, water quality standards, or regulations for toxic algae in drinking water or recreational use. There is also very little research into the short-term and long-term effects of these toxins in humans.
Dr. Bellinger said the algae bloom mats in Austin are also understudied, despite becoming more common, so his work will be vital in identifying the main culprits in this crisis.
“That’s how you really get the long-term change and improvement in the health system,” he said.
The city is increasing testing, updating signage and planning to implement short-term fixes to prevent the growth of toxic algae. Dr. Bellinger said test results take about a week to 14 days.
Moriarty said that’s too long to wait when lives at are stake. He said the city should be testing more frequently and getting quicker results. The EPA recommends city agencies dealing with recreational exposure to HABs to invest in rapid testing that can determine water quality within hours.
“What is the worst-case scenario? Some kid calls in and gets a mouthful and gets sick?” Moriarty said.
An Austin Water spokesperson said they test water treatment plants every two weeks and use several processes to remove toxins from HABs.
We asked the EPA of Texas how many water bodies have toxic algae in the state. A representative said they are unsure if they track that data.