Four dogs died last month after swimming in the Umpqua River. It was speculated that the deaths were due to ingesting toxic algae in the water. The Mail Tribune reported on Sept. 11 that lab tests on one dog confirmed the death was due to the toxic algae Anabaena flos-aquae. This is the first confirmed pet death from toxic algae in the state. Unfortunately, it will likely not be the last.
State health officials expressed hope that the dog's death will persuade Oregonians to take public-health algae advisories more seriously. However, the problem is not with the public, it is that our waterways are becoming toxic to touch. The appropriate response to the dog's death is for the state to take the growing problem, and its underlying cause, much more seriously.
Lost Creek Reservoir in the Rogue Basin has had health advisories posted the past four years in a row. The algae in the popular Jackson County reservoir is the same strain found to have killed the dog on the Umpqua.
Across the U.S. and around the world, the spread of toxic algae, or cyanobacteria, is an escalating problem that threatens water supplies, human health, wildlife and recreation economies. One only has to look south to the Klamath River to see that toxic algae has created such a serious problem that 90 miles of the river was posted this summer as hazardous due to the presence of dangerous levels of toxic algae. Oregon's lakes and rivers mirror this trend and are experiencing increased occurrences of the toxic blooms.
Of the cyanobacteria that are toxic, three have been found in Oregon: 1) Anabaena, which produces a powerful neurotoxin responsible for livestock and dog deaths; 2) Microcystis, which produces a liver toxin that is likely carcinogenic; and 3) Aphanizomenon, which produces a strong neurotoxin.
Cyanobacterial toxins make some of Oregon's cherished waterways dangerous to touch or ingest. Exposure to these toxins can cause breathing and heart problems, liver failure, skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, cramps, and fainting. The toxins from Anabaena, Microcystis, and Aphanizomenon are many times more potent than some of the most venomous snakes in the world.
In addition, these toxins accumulate in fatty fish tissues. Microcystins bioaccumulate in common aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates, including fish and mussels. Consequently, there is considerable potential for toxic effects to be magnified in aquatic food chains with the potential to harm humans and fish-consuming birds and mammals.
Numerous cases of animal poisoning of cattle, sheep, horses and dogs — often lethal — highlight the concern of health hazards for humans exposed to cyanobacteria. While acute toxicity is the most obvious problem in poisoning, long-term risks may also be present. Short exposures may result in long-term injury, and chronic low-level exposure may cause adverse health effects.
An Oregon State University researcher also believes that cyanobacteria may make surface water hazardous for irrigation use because the toxin can damage plants, accumulate in crops and affect human health.
The presence of toxic algae in our waterways is a growing problem, literally, and we must take action beyond posting local warnings to avoid contact. The key action needed to reduce cyanobacterial blooms is to address the source of the problem through controlling and reducing the amount of external nutrient loading to the waterbody. The three major sources of excessive nutrient inputs are run-off from fertilized land, erosion resulting from deforestation and sewage.
Pollution from cyanobacterial toxins violates Oregon's water-quality standards. So in June, Rogue Riverkeeper requested that the Department of Environmental Quality list all water bodies in the state that have been found to contain high levels of cyanobacteria as "water quality impaired" under the Clean Water Act. This is a vital step that will give Oregon the tools it needs to begin seeking solutions to this problem. By placing these waters on the impaired list, DEQ can encourage additional monitoring of the blooms, the underlying conditions that lead to them, and the actual levels of cyanotoxins in Oregon waters. Such monitoring will help DEQ prepare management plans to remedy this water quality crisis.
DEQ is scheduled to release a draft list this fall and advocates for water quality and public safety hope to see water bodies impacted by toxic algae on that list. The toxic algae problem is here, it's dangerous, and it won't go away on its own. We should not be satisfied with health warnings when we could address the source of the problem.
Lesley Adams is the Rogue Riverkeeper for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. For more information, visit www.kswild.org.