Algae wreaks havoc on summer plans

Harmful algal blooms that present themselves in mats are found in the Three Rivers area, are harmful to people and animals, visitors are advised to stay out of the water

TULARE COUNTY – Extreme heat and stagnant water has provided prime conditions for potentially toxic algal matter to become more prominent in recreational areas showing cause for concern for local swimming holes. 

State, county and community members warn individuals who are looking to cool off in areas surrounding Three Rivers, not to get in the water. Harmful algal blooms (HAB) were reportedly seen in areas around Skyline Pond, Slick Rock and a mile west of Dinely Bridge.

“We are just trying to work with [the National Park Service] to really put out the notification that right now at this time, we are encouraging people not to get into the river,” Supervisor Eddie Valero for District Four, which covers Three Rivers, said.

The Three Rivers Community Service District (3RCSD) is working hard to post toxic algae alert signs near the river after an algal bloom was reported and tested at Skyline Pond. Children and animals are more susceptible to serious health impacts and the California Water Board recommends they avoid touching any suspicious looking algal material found in the water or along riverbanks. These HABs can lead to serious health issues for animals ranging from minor sickness to death, according to Cindy Howell the general manager for 3RCSD.

These HABs are not new to the area, but this year they are more widespread in areas where people gather. The algal blooms can usually be found in ponds and stagnant water in the form of algal mats. The lack of water, caused by the drought, combined with extreme temperatures provide the perfect recipe for these toxic blooms to grow in more areas than usual. 

“It is just the perfect storm,” President David Mills of 3RCSD said.

According to Erik Meyers, ecologist for the Sequoia and Kings National Park, this is an issue the park has already been studying because there is algae in streams every year. Residents have said an additional cause for the algae is from fires in the surrounding areas, but Meyers said that is not something they have been able to prove.

“What mostly exacerbates [the harmful algae] is the drought,” Meyers said. “We had one of the worst water years on record and when you don’t have high flow events, like runoff events that scour the rocks of algae, or if the peak runoff is earlier than normal, then the conditions only get more exacerbated throughout the summer, that makes algae worse.”

According to the State Water Board, these HABs are caused by algal or cyanobacteria that grow while floating in the water or attached to the bottom surface of waterways, leading to the algal mats. Boaters and recreational users are urged to be alert when recreating in the water. Inhalation of spray or mist coming off water with high levels of cyanotoxin, or HABs, concentrations may contribute to exposure during activities like jet or water skiing. 

The potentially toxic algal mats can be found either attached to the bottom, floating in the water or stranded on the riverbank. The appearance of algal mats ranges from bright to dull-green, orange, brown and maroon material. When in doubt, avoid touching all algal mats. 

Signs and symptoms of exposure to HABs, or cyanobacterial or cyanotoxins include sore throat or congestion; coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing; red, or itchy skin, or a rash; skin blisters or hives; earache or irritated eyes; diarrhea or vomiting; agitation; headache; and/or, abdominal pain.

It is important to get medical treatment immediately if you think that you, your pet or livestock has gotten sick after going in the water or incidentally ingesting the mat material. Be sure to alert the medical professional to the possible contact with cyanobacteria. Also, make sure to contact the local county public health department. 

The State Water Board has an Incident Report Map webpage where individuals can see where there is an outbreak and the severity of HABs. Currently the area between Kaweah lake and Three Rivers has three areas on the map, all reading at a mid level of “caution.” There is also an online portal to report possible outbreaks. 

The Water Board recommends that people practice healthy water habits while enjoying the outdoors this summer at your local lake, river, or stream: 

  • Heed all instructions on posted advisories if present 
  • Avoid algae and scum in the water and on the shore 
  • Keep an eye on children and pets 
  • If you think a harmful algal bloom or toxic algal mats are present, do not let pets and other animals go into or drink the water or eat scum/algal mats on the shore 
  • Don’t drink the water or use it for cooking 
  • Wash yourself, your family, and your pets with clean water after water play 
  • If you catch fish, throw away guts and clean fillets with tap water or bottled water before cooking 
  • Avoid eating shellfish if you think a harmful algal bloom is present 

Unfortunately there does not appear to be any specific cure for HAB. Only time, change of seasons or a heavy rain could help eliminate this problem. Meyers said he has been studying these types of HABs with hopes to answer questions like what causes the algae. 

Local residents are concerned about their drinking water, but luckily the harmful algae appears to be steering clear of Three Rivers residents’ well water. 

“The state is coming in and working on testing, and a lot of this [algae] is coming from the river, so it’s not impeding on the wells, or the private systems that are there,” Valero said. “I know that constituents and residents are worried about the water contamination, and it is not a water contamination issue, it’s more of the algae blooms in the river.” 

To report a bloom, do one of the following: 

  • Fill out the Bloom Report form on the portal 
  • Email: [email protected] 
  • Call the HABs hotline: 1-844-729-6466 (toll free) 
  • Contact your County Environmental Health Office, 559-624-7400

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