Community gets primer on toxic algae

Jesse Hollett
Posted 8/30/17

ORANGE PARK – In the summertime when the water heats and flows sluggish through Doctors Lake, toxic algae blooms come to life.

When they do, information is critical but often difficult to …

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Community gets primer on toxic algae

Posted

ORANGE PARK – In the summertime when the water heats and flows sluggish through Doctors Lake, toxic algae blooms come to life.

When they do, information is critical but often difficult to access.

To remedy this, on Tuesday, the St. Johns Riverkeeper held an informational seminar on the causes and health concerns related to toxic algae blooms at Orange Park Town Hall’s Council Chambers. About 30 residents attended the meeting.

“All of our council is behind getting everyone together and having this tonight,” said Council Member Connie Thomas. “This is important.”

Doctors Lake, in particular, is a hotspot for algae blooms in Florida. In July, the riverkeeper examined samples from the lake that tested three times higher than federal safety guidelines for a toxin known as microcystin.

The toxin, created from an aquatic organism known as cyanobacteria, can damage the human liver and kidneys and cause irritation in the upper respiratory system.

Cyanobacteria can create several separate toxins including neurotoxins similar to cobra venom and create symptoms similar to paralytic shellfish poisoning.

The bacteria often creates an unpleasant odor and can appear like paint on top of the water.

“Cyanobacteria, that’s the one we’re really concerned about right now,” said Aquatic Ecologist Robert Storm Burks, the keynote speaker. “It’s very difficult what to tell from surface color, because they all look different.”

The bacteria thrives when sunlight, heat and nutrients abound. Coupled with the slow moving waters of Doctors Lake, cyanobacteria can multiply quickly.

Doctors Lake and the St. Johns River both absorb nutrients from manmade sources such as fertilizer, which contributes to the health of the deadly organism and harms water quality for nearby wildlife.

The bacteria is also capable of controlling its buoyancy, meaning there could be one in the afternoon, but come evening the organism could be gone.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not there, you just can’t see it,” Burks said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recommends residents report suspect algae blooms. DEP tests the water and adds the data to an interactive map found on their website.

The riverkeeper also has a web-based app called Water Rangers that is designed for users to report algae blooms and other water abnormalities in real time.

“What we’re really trying to do is hold the Department of Environmental Protection accountable to go out and sample these blooms to determine if they are toxic, because this is important for public health,” said Justina Dacey, community engagement coordinator for St. Johns Riverkeeper.

The riverkeeper collects samples of suspected algae blooms to measure toxicity levels in tandem with state tests.

To reduce the occurrence of toxic algae blooms, residents should regularly maintain their septic tanks and ensure they keep a 10-foot buffer zone between fertilizer and any waterbody.

Since it is impossible to discern visually if a bloom is producing toxins, it is recommended to avoid contact with all algal blooms.

Animals who come in contact with an algae bloom should be hosed down thoroughly before they begin to groom themselves.

“They get it on their coat and they will lick it, and we’ve had documentation of dogs dying…do not let them go out in the water,” Burks said.

South Florida experienced a major algae bloom last year that shuttered businesses and sickened residents. As seas warm from climate change and nutrients build up in waterways, experts say toxic algae blooms could become more common.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper will hold another seminar at St. Johns River State College on Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m. That seminar is designed to help residents identify plant species.

The website stjohnsriverkeeper.org has a primer on how to report algae blooms through the Water Rangers app.

Since it is not possible to visually tell if a bloom is toxic, it is recommended to avoid all algal blooms. Do not come in contact with the algae, and do not allow pets or livestock to swim in or drink water where blooms are present. If you, your children or your animals accidently come in contact with an algal bloom, wash with fresh water and soap after skin contact and avoid swallowing or inhaling water. Wash your animals thoroughly before they start to groom themselves.

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