Ecology tests Toad, Wiser lakes for toxic algae blooms

Steve Hood, a water quality engineer with the Washington state Department of Ecology, takes a water sample at Toad Lake just outside Bellingham on Wednesday, Sept. 2.
Steve Hood, a water quality engineer with the Washington state Department of Ecology, takes a water sample at Toad Lake just outside Bellingham on Wednesday, Sept. 2. The Bellingham Herald

Ecology officials are testing Toad and Wiser lakes in Whatcom County to find out whether the blue-green algae blooms in both lakes could be harmful to people and their pets.

Steve Hood, environmental engineer for Ecology, took water samples from both lakes Wednesday, Sept. 2. Toad Lake is northeast of Bellingham, Wiser Lake is south of Lynden.

One sample taken last week by a concerned swimmer showed that a blue-green bloom found along the eastern shoreline of Toad Lake, off Emerald Lake Way, was toxic.

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.

Blue-green algae blooms often look 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 difficult 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, in high enough concentrations, can sicken humans and kill 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 the algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is toxic is to have it tested.

Not all waterways in Washington state are monitored for such blooms, but lakes can be tested if there’s a suspected bloom.

“It’s not a focused study approach. It’s been driven by people who have an interest,” Hood said.

Which is why he was at Toad Lake on Wednesday.

Standing near him was Beth Anderson, who swims in the lake just about every day in the summer. So does her husband.

Or at least they did, until Anderson took a sample of the water Aug. 25 after reading a story about algae blooms in The Bellingham Herald, and preliminary results from a lab showed that it had high levels of toxins known as mycrocystins.

Mycrocystins are the most commonly found blue-green algae toxins. The other one that’s tested for is anatoxin-a.

The lab results came back negative for anatoxin-a. Mycrocystins levels on the east beach at Toad Lake, where Anderson had collected the first water sample and Hood was collecting the second, were well above state guidelines to protect human health in recreational bodies of water. That’s 6 micrograms per liter.

The sample Anderson took, from a private beach where she entered the water to swim, was 203 micrograms per liter.

Ecology called her the day after she took the sample and overnighted it to the lab. It was in the afternoon, just as she was getting ready to go for a swim again after talking herself out of worrying about the green scum on the water.

She and her husband were never sickened by the algae.

Toad Lake also has public access, from a dock that’s on the opposite side on the west end.

Now, Anderson is waiting to hear whether Hood’s sample will show a drop in the toxin level.

“If the tests come out better,” Anderson said, “it would be awesome to swim here again.”

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.