Depts of Health and Ecology weigh in on Columbia River toxic algae

According to the DOH, toxic algae is an increasing occurrence across the country, and the world. Washington is seeing an increasing presence of the toxins.

RICHLAND, Wash. — Friday, the Benton-Franklin County Health District reported levels of toxic algae, Anatoxin-a, in the Columbia River. The first time Richland has seen toxic algae was just last year.

They reported to have detected it around Leslie Groves Park, all the way down to Columbia Point Marina in Richland. The Health District is advising everyone to stay out of the water right now.

Colleen Kelts is with the Water Quality Program in the Department of Ecology. She attributed the warm, dry fall for the toxins in the water.

She said it was unusual to see this toxic build-up occur in the river.

“I will say the majority of the blooms happen in lakes. Seeing them in rivers or streams—water that’s supposed to be moving—is more unique,” said Kelts.

“We have seen this before. In the past, when water does slow down and kind of acts like a lake,” Kelts said.

If you notice algae growing, Kelts said to call the Health Department to get it tested.

“You’re not gonna be able to tell with your eyes whether or not it’s harmful to your health,” said Kelts. It will look just like any other algae. Kelts also said to keep animals and children out of the water.

The Department of Ecology’s algae catchphrase is, ‘See a bloom, give it room.’

RELATED: BFHD: Toxic Algae discovered at Richland’s Leslie Groves Park

KAPP-KVEW Local News reached out to the Department of Health. Gopala Mulukutla, DOH’s Water and Climate Policy Specialist answered these questions:

What effects can toxic algae have on people or animals who ingest it?

Toxic algal blooms can result in the release of cyanotoxin, naturally occurring compounds that can be toxic to the nervous system and/or liver (neuro and heap-toxins), making them deadly even in small doses to humans and animals. 

Animals may exhibit severe signs, such as collapsing, seizures, and even death within minutes to hours after swallowing contaminated water. For humans, high doses of heap-toxins can cause a hemorrhage in the liver, and neuro toxins affect central nervous system function, with lethal doses causing muscular paralysis and respiratory failure.

Do we have any idea how toxic algae can develop?

Cyanotoxin producing algae (comprising of two different types of organisms – blue green algae and cyanobacteria) are naturally occurring ancient organisms that have existed for millions of years. Changes in the water quality of our rivers, streams, and lakes, have been attributed as the likely cause of proliferation of toxic algae issues. Bodies of water are receiving high nutrients, experiencing higher temperatures, and seeing lower water levels, which are all stressors that have been implicated in causing these issues.

It’s only been identified in Richland twice now. Is it happening elsewhere as well?

Across the country and the world, toxic algae are an increasing occurrence.  In WA we are seeing an increasing number of lakes, reservoirs, and certain rivers testing for confirmed presence of toxins.

How long might this last?

We do not know exactly how long this might last. Per DOH guidelines, testing of the waters will have to continue weekly. The advisory can be removed after two consecutive weeks of testing below advisory levels (along with no visible presence of a bloom).

Any other insights you might have regarding toxic algae?

Although surface blooms of toxic algae are the most commonly occurring sources of cyanotoxins in lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, they can also grow as benthic algal mats attached to the bottom substrate in shallow river and lake beds, and not be visible as surface blooms. There was no confirmed presence of a visible surface bloom in the Columbia River last year (or this year so far). While it is suspected that the source of the toxins is of benthic origin, there are ongoing efforts among local, state, and federal agencies to identify and locate the source of the toxins in the river.