- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

BEND, Ore. (AP) - Oregon is one of several states without a routine water testing program, meaning many bodies of water aren’t monitored for harmful algae blooms.

Such blue-green algae blooms cause a handful of the state’s lakes to be shut down each summer, The Bulletin (https://bit.ly/296W8cf ) newspaper reported. The blooms are caused by toxin-producing bacteria and often form a green paint-like scum on the surface of the water. It can cause health problems for humans and can kill livestock and pets.

Most blooms are only a minor inconvenience, but environmental authorities are concerned that climate change and runoff are increasing the frequency and severity of harmful algae blooms and putting people and animals at greater risk.

The state relies on other agencies to test for toxins and inform state officials if the levels are unsafe.

Dr. Wayne Carmichael, a now-retired algae expert, says the blooms will get worse unless people address water quality.

“We’ll have more of them producing toxins, more frequently and in longer durations,” he said. “And sooner or later people will become more acutely poisoned.”

The blooms are not actually algae, but cyanobacteria, single-celled organisms that have a metabolism similar to that of algae. Cyanobacteria are among the oldest life forms on earth.

“They’re actually good bacteria. They just get a little bit out of hand,” explained Rebecca Hillwig, an environmental health specialist who runs the Harmful Algae Bloom Surveillance Program for the Oregon Health Authority.

Cyanobacteria can multiply rapidly under the right conditions, causing bacterial colonies that are visible in the water. Although they look the same, some are harmless and others produce toxins.

Scientists believe that warmer temperatures are allowing the cyanobacteria to thrive and extending its range farther north.

“There are indications that our season is getting longer,” said Hillwig. “We can now see them from the beginning of May into January, and the blooms appear in some cases to be getting larger.”

The blooms also seem to be happening more often, experts said.

“The frequency is increasing,” Carmichael said. “We’ve just created conditions that they like to grow in, complicated perhaps by global warming.”

Health officials have tried to track cases of human illness caused by these blooms, but believe it is underreported.

Former Oregon State University researcher Tim Otten, who founded the water quality monitoring and consulting firm Bend Genetics, said the toxin can be deadly. They are unlikely to affect humans, who don’t typically drink untreated surface water.

“But pets and livestock will drink the water and keel over dead,” said Otten.

Oregon’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding has left it ahead of most states on monitoring the blooms. Help may also be coming from the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued new guidelines last year for when to post alerts. The agency also began monitoring blooms to determine the scope of the problem and is working on developing limits on toxins in drinking water.

The CDC also launched a national database last week to track harmful algae blooms and their health impact. For now, the effort will rely on voluntary reporting from the states.

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Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com

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