Utah’s drought is driving reservoir levels down and contributing to the spread of harmful algal blooms as the state continues to swelter under the heat — and the prime season for bloom formations remains ahead.
A half-dozen water bodies in the state are under some sort of advisory because of the presence of cyanobacteria, which can kill pets and sicken people.
Scofield Reservoir is under a danger advisory because of an off-the-charts cell count of 72,825,198 per milliliter.
Kate Fickas, with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the cell count at Scofield is unusual.
“This is a very dense bloom. We rarely see blooms above 10 million per milliliter in the state of Utah.”
Fickas works in the Division of Water Quality as the recreational water quality health program coordinator.
Across the state, the division monitors 60 bodies of water for pathogens or bloom outbreaks.
That monitoring takes place monthly, and if there is a problem, it ramps up to weekly. For severe outbreaks like the shore-to-shore harmful algal bloom at Utah Lake, sampling and monitoring can take place every couple of days.
Utah Lake, Scofield, Mantua, Matt Warner, Otter Creek State Park and the north fork of the Virgin River are all suffering from harmful algal blooms.
The Bountiful Pond and the Highland Glen Pond both tested for the presence of waterborne pathogens and are also being monitored.
“So far what we have seen is really low water levels, warming lakes and reservoirs, and from that we have seen an increase in harmful algal blooms that don’t usually bloom toward later in the summer,” she said.
At Scofield, for example, Fickas said the density of the outbreak is such that a bloom builds on top another bloom, creating the extremely hazardous conditions.
Under a danger advisory, people and their pets should stay out of the water completely to avoid exposure to the bloom. Fishing is OK, but fish should be cleaned and the guts discarded, she said. Anglers should wash their hands thoroughly after handling the fish.
Blooms typically make an annual appearance in Utah, but they have come on earlier this year.
Fickas said as the blooms die off, that is when the toxins are released. There are many, many types of cyanobacteria that can pose serious health risks to people, pets and livestock.
Some can cause nerve or liver damage and skin irritation.
According to the state agency’s website on harmful algal blooms, some blooms that test nontoxic one day can turn toxic the next day.
Ongoing funding from the Utah Legislature has allowed the agency to ramp up its monitoring and outreach programs to inform the public about harmful algal blooms and their potential danger.
Five years ago, an unprecedented algal bloom at Utah Lake prompted hundreds of calls to the Utah Poison Control Center from people possibly exposed.
Since then, public awareness has greatly increased, Fickas said.
“The trend is increasing,” she said. “We have seen more than double each year since 2016 the number of calls that come in to our tip line and the Poison Control Center has also seen a significant increase in calls.”
Fickas said that increase in calls does not necessarily mean more people have been exposed, but they are more aware of blooms and their potential danger.
“We have seen public awareness significantly increase the last several years.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, harmful algal blooms are a major environmental problem in all 50 states. Not only do they pose a public health threat, they can harm industries that depend on clean water and raise water treatment costs.
In Utah, the division’s active monitoring program has a twofold mission, Fickas said.
“We want to make sure we are striking a balance so folks can recreate in their favorite waterbodies but we want to keep people safe,” she said. “We make recommendations based on the science so folks can have fun, but stay safe while doing it.”
The agency has a 24-hour phone number — 1-801-536-4123 — for the public to report blooms. If someone suspects they have been exposed, they can call the Utah Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.