SALT LAKE CITY — A warming climate and human development are joining forces to produce more harmful green sludge in lakes and rivers — algal blooms that are popping up earlier in the season and lasting longer.
Utah joins a number of places across the country and the globe that are experiencing these outbreaks that jeopardize a lake or river's recreation value and keep people away.
Scientists with the Utah Division of Water Quality have already been sampling Utah Lake for harmful algal blooms, detecting some levels of cyanobacteria, said Ben Holcomb, coordinator of the division's harmful algal bloom program.
"We are seeing where it is greening up," he said. "We've seen some cyanobacteria popping up, but it is below the human threshold."
Holcomb was among several experts who took questions on Thursday at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality on the coming algal bloom season, describing what agencies are doing to prepare.
Because of the low water year and higher than average temperatures so far this month, it has become a question of when, not if, the blooms will occur.
Last year, 12 water bodies were infested with cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins harmful to humans and animals.
A Scofield Reservoir bloom killed bats, and a dog exposed to the cyanobacteria at Utah Lake died.
Holcomb said he is hopeful for a year that does not surpass 2017 numbers and also avoids the circumstances of 2016, when nearly the entire surface of Utah Lake was covered in blue-green algae.
Although there have been no human deaths in the United States associated with cyanobacteria, it is an increasingly problematic health problem.
Hundreds of people reported symptoms to the Utah Poison Control Center in the wake of outbreaks at Utah Lake, and farmers as well as other secondary water users worried that infested water could contaminate crops, harm livestock or create exposure risks at their homes.
Barbara Crouch said information from those exposures was fed into a national database kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is trying to learn more about cyanobacteria.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, feeds on the buildup of nutrients that come from wastewater discharge, urban runoff and other human activities. Although phosphorus and nitrogen occur naturally, excess of these nutrients is called eutrophication, which can kill fish and other aquatic life.
Multiple studies are underway involving Utah Lake, with researchers searching for answers to get control of the problem.2 comments on this story
Utah water quality regulators instituted a new rule limiting phosphorus in wastewater discharge that will require upgrades to treatment plants by 2020.
While that will help, Holcomb said the problem of cyanobacteria will be a tough one to fix due to their adaptive nature.
"The blooms are happening at this pace because the cyanobacteria are well adapted and evolve for chaos," he said. "They live in all manner of harsh environments — from Yellowstone hot springs to the Antarctic."