State: Beware of toxic blue-green algae blooms in freshwater lakes, streams

A previous blue-green algae bloom at Hicklin Lake, also known as Hicks Lake, in White Center.
A previous blue-green algae bloom at Hicklin Lake, also known as Hicks Lake, in White Center. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

If you see what looks like green dye or paint dumped into a lake or stream, stay out and keep your children and pets out.

That could be toxic blue-green algae, which, in high enough concentrations, could make you sick or kill your dog if your pet drinks the contaminated water.

Health and ecology officials said there have been more intense and widespread algae blooms this summer in the state’s lakes and streams, as well as the marine waters of Puget Sound. Scientists believe warm water due to the recent hot weather and the state’s drought could be part of the cause.

Nine lakes in the state have toxic blooms of blue-green algae, which also are known as cyanobacteria.

They are Rufus Woods Lake in Douglas County; Gibbs Lake in Jefferson County; Lake Jeane in King County; Bay, Ohop, Spanaway and Wapato lakes in Pierce County; and Lone and Cranberry lakes on Whidbey Island.

None of the lakes were in Whatcom County, although a sample taken from Wiser Lake in August 2014 showed a toxic bloom. Lake Padden also has been sampled but not since 2013, although all samples have come back negative for a toxic bloom.

There have been no confirmed reports this year of people being harmed by such blooms, but there were a couple of reports of dogs becoming ill after swimming in Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, said Joan Hardy, a toxicologist with the Washington state Department of Health.

People should continue to be wary in the coming months if they see what looks like green scum on water surfaces.

Toxic blue-green algae blooms in freshwater spike in September and October.

“By then the water is so warm,” said Lizbeth Seebacher, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Ecology who oversees the state’s freshwater algae control program.

Blue-green algae blooms often looks like green paint floating on water, but they can be bright green, blue, brown or reddish green. The algae is made up of extremely small organisms that are hard to pick up or hold.

Most blue-green algae blooms are not toxic. But depending on conditions, the algae can release toxins into the water that can cause illness in humans and animals. People who drink the contaminated water may have numbness of the lips, tingling in their fingers and toes, and dizziness. People who swim in contaminated water may develop a skin rash.

But the only way to know whether what you’re looking at is toxic is to have it tested.

State officials said more tests are being conducted this year, adding that’s also because more people are learning about the issue.

Not all waterways in Washington state are monitored for such blooms, but lakes can be tested if there’s a suspected bloom. “It’s a patchy surveillance system,” Seebacher said.

Sampling is also up to local jurisdictions, including health departments.

“We do not conduct routine algal or bacterial water quality monitoring on fresh water lakes in Whatcom County,” said Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department.

When it does sample, the Whatcom County Health Department doesn’t do so unless it’s a public waterway.

People who are concerned about water on their land, such as a pond for example, will be given sampling kits. The county health department has distributed three such kits.

“We have had a few inquiries about toxic algal blooms on privately owned beaches — areas not near public access points,” Kunesh said. “There are currently no public health warnings about toxic blue-green algal blooms on public beaches in Whatcom County.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

Algae help

Learn more about toxic blue-green algae blooms in freshwater online at:

▪ nwtoxicalgae.org for the Washington State Toxic Algae program, which monitors blooms in freshwater. The website includes a photo gallery of such blooms, which often look like green paint floating on water.

▪ doh.wa.gov. Type “blue-green algae” into the search window.

▪ People concerned about possible toxic algae blooms in freshwater in Whatcom County can call the health department at 360-778-6000.