Here’s where toxic algae blooms threaten NC lakes this summer

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has created a new interactive map that shows algae blooms across the state. The map is at nando.com/52o.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has created a new interactive map that shows algae blooms across the state. The map is at nando.com/52o.

On Friday morning, a team from the state’s water protection division scampered over boulders to dangle a monitoring device into the Lower Barton’s Creek section of Falls Lake in Wake County.

The trio from the Intensive Survey Branch at the Department of Environmental Quality was looking for evidence of algae blooms, which turn water blue and green or reddish brown and may contain toxins which can kill fish and irritate people’s skin, cause breathing problems and possibly cause liver and kidney damage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A passing driver had spotted a sizable swatch of reddish water on Thursday.

“It kind of worried me,” the driver, Bill Lichtner, who lives nearby, said in an interview Friday. “I’ve never seen anything like that in Falls Lake.”

The state team saw traces of red on Friday but did not detect the presence of a significant amount of algae blooms. The phenomenon is easier to spot during the afternoon as temperatures rise.

For the state regulators, it was a typical summertime call. About 80 percent of blooms occur between May and August. And algae levels can spike after heavy rainstorms like those the state has seen this summer because the rains cause more nutrients to flow into the lake, said Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for DEQ.

Algae are tiny plants found in water or damp areas. Some blooms of blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, according to the Department of Environmental Quality’s web site, are toxic to animals and humans who drink the untreated water. Though the state web site also points out that there have been no reports of anyone in the state getting sick from the blue-green algae.

Under some conditions, the algae blooms can multiply rapidly in lakes and ponds, turn water different color and leave a scum on the water’s surface. The upper regions of both Falls Lake and Jordan Lake, which are the main sources of drinking water for the Triangle, are considered to be impaired with excessive algae.

To alert the public about its potential health threat, the state has posted a new interactive map that shows where there have been algae blooms across the state for every year since 2012. So far this year, the number of blooms investigated by the state is consistent with previous years, which averaged eight blooms annually.

But overall, scientists have found a general increase in algae blooms as temperatures and drought conditions rise, according to DEQ.

The Intensive Survey Branch checks out reports like Lichtner’s whenever they come in. The state also has an online reporting form that people can use to alert the authorities. Additional information can be found online at nando.com/52o.

Just last week, the state announced it had been watching an algae bloom in the Chowan River between Harrellsville and Edenton Bay for nearly a month, and issued a warning to avoid green or blue water. There have been no reported health problems connected to the bloom, the state reported.

Jordan and Falls lakes are monitored each month by the state. Samples that the state teams collect are tested in a water sciences lab in Raleigh, so the potential threat can be determined.

Here’s what state environmental experts recommend:

Keep children and pets away from water that is bright green, blue, discolored or scummy. Don’t touch large mats of algae.

Don’t handle, cook or eat dead fish from the area.

Wash thoroughly if you touch a bloom.

Rinse off pets that have come into contact with blooms with clean water.

Children who appear ill after coming into contact with algal blooms should receive immediate medical attention.

Pets that appear to stumble, stagger or collapse after being in a lake, pond or river should receive immediate veterinary care.

Algae is removed from the drinking water supply at water treatment plants, along with associated odors and tastes.