For Immediate Release
May 11, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Algal Blooms: What's that strange substance?

An Op-Ed Column by John Mitchell
Director, Division of Environment

Miami Co SFL bloom collecting 3Throughout the summer and into the fall, people may see a strange substance floating in or on Kansas ponds, lake or streams.  It may look like surface scum -- clumps which look like grass clippings or curds of green cottage cheese -- or there may be a strong green color in the water.  Its color can vary from red, blue, brown and white, but is more commonly green and may have a foul septic, fishy or petroleum-like odor.  What you are looking at is most likely blue-green algae and this occurs every year at this time in Kansas.

Algae are generally microscopic organisms, often considered as simple aquatic plants which do not have roots, stems or leaves.  Algae can range in size from microscopic to feet in length and occur naturally almost everywhere in the world. 

There are times when conditions in the environment result in the rapid population growth of algae creating these thick accumulations of organisms.  This is called a “bloom.”  Blooms can occur naturally, but there are some conditions that are known to contribute to the intensity of a bloom.  Some of those conditions are human-induced because of fertilization of lawns or agricultural fields, or during the release of untreated sewage.  Other conditions are naturally occurring, like low stream flows or in stagnant water bodies when there are low winds and high temperatures. 
                         
There are many unwanted effects when blooms occur in water bodies.  When this rapid population growth of algae does occur, the organisms often deoxygenate the water resulting in massive fish kills.  Other undesirable results can include: increased costs of operating water treatment plants, unpleasant odors and tastes in drinking water, the clogging of filters and machinery, poor water aesthetics spoiling recreational use and the poisoning of pets and livestock.

Many of the common blue-green algae have the ability to produce toxins.  Exposure to these toxins can often cause “allergic” type reactions such as intestinal problems, muscle weakness, seizures, respiratory problems or skin irritations.  Although there have been only a few human deaths linked to exposure to these toxins, there have been many cases of pets, livestock or wildlife dying after contact with lakes and ponds suffering a blue-green algae bloom.  It is advisable to take reasonable precautions to avoid any activities that expose yourself, your pets, or your livestock until the bloom goes away.  This could take a couple of weeks to months if the water body is highly enriched with nutrients.

There are several activities that we can do to help reduce the occurrence of harmful algal blooms in our ponds, lakes, and streams.  Here are some management practices that can be implemented by everyone:

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is continually trying to implement best management practices to reduce nutrient inputs into our state waters.  Our goal is to improve water quality conditions in our state that will also reduce algal bloom events.  All Kansans, working together, can improve the water quality in our State.

John Mitchell is the Director of Environment at Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jmitchell@kdheks.gov.