State launches website to track harmful algae blooms

State launches website to track harmful algae blooms

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright

Montana environmental and health officials launched a new website where members of the public can report what they believe to be harmful algae blooms.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services announced the new website and a tip line in a press release on Monday. People will be able to upload photos of a bloom and give GPS coordinates for exactly where it was.

The agencies want to educate the public and they want their help in tracking and identifying harmful blooms.

“We want to get better with communicating with the public,” said Myla Kelly, a water quality specialist with the DEQ.

Harmful algae blooms refer to blue-green algae, which produces certain toxins that can be harmful to people and animals. They turn the water into something like pea soup, and the algae is usually suspended in the water column.

Animals have been killed by the blooms in the past, but the state’s press release said there have been no humans killed by harmful algae.

Kelly said the blooms occur in waterbodies that see a lot of sunlight and have high nutrient loads and warmer temperatures. She said there have also been blooms at Clark Canyon Reservoir and at Canyon Ferry Reservoir in the past. But the state hasn’t done much to keep track of them.

Hebgen Lake regularly sees blooms of the algae. Last year a bloom on the lake’s northern shore lasted into October, which Kelly said was unusual.

“It definitely lasted much longer into the fall than anyone was anticipating,” Kelly said.

The issue has garnered more attention around the country in the last few years. The state’s press release said that a bloom on Lake Erie in 2014 left 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio, without the public water supply for a few days. A bloom covered 636 miles of the Ohio River in 2015.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s websitesays that climate change may be increasing the frequency of the blooms and may make them more severe. It cites Lake Erie, where warming temperatures have caused blooms to last into the winter.

Whether that applies to Montana isn’t clear, Kelly said.

“It’s hard to say if we’re going to be seeing these more frequently,” Kelly said.

It’s also hard for them to say whether the state is already seeing more of them because they haven’t tracked the blooms very closely in the past. The blooms on Hebgen Lake are well documented because Northwestern Energy is required to monitor for them, but that’s not true on all water bodies in the state.