SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah – The Salt Lake County Health Department issued a "toxic algae warning" Tuesday, for the Blackridge Reservoir in Herriman, as well as Wheeler Farm and the Jordan Narrows after harmful levels of toxins were detected in the waterways.
The health department said it stems from blue-green algae, a harmful and naturally occurring organism that flourishes in the right conditions.
“Algae grows when it’s in slow water when you have enough nutrients and enough light,” said Teresa Gray, the Salt Lake County Health Department bureau manager for water quality and hazardous waste.
This is the third year the harmful algae has been present in Utah, and this year is no different – once again the toxic algae has been detected all over the state, and as of Tuesday, the Jordan River.
“We have it indigenous to the area,” said Gray.
Unlike other waterways, the danger isn’t in the scum, it’s in a toxin the scum leaves behind – known as Anatoxin-A.
“The anatoxin is produced by the blue-green algae when it dies, and so when the cells break apart it releases the toxin,” Gray said.
Meaning there could be no visible algae and the water could still be dangerous.
“We have been out since the beginning of June doing testing on this since it’s become a normal thing,” Gray said.
As a precaution, the health department conducts weekly tests, taking samples of the water that can determine in a week’s time if it is safe or not.
Whenever there are toxic levels from blue-green algae, the health department puts up a bright yellow “WARNING” sign that reads, “Toxic algae present, waterway unsafe for people and pets.
“It can cause irritations (to humans) at this level, also if it gets to higher levels of toxins, you can have issues with inhalation when breathing or issues if you ingest it,” said Gray.
“The pets can have irritation, it can cause vomiting. In severe, severe cases it can actually cause respiratory issues and they can die,” Gray added.
This year the algae has been detected in a number of Utah freshwater sources, from Scofield Reservoir to Utah Lake, but the health department said the algae isn't spreading from water to water.
“The organisms present and we’ve got good conditions for it to grow,” Gray said. “We don’t know why for sure it is happening but we are seeing it consistently now.”
The health department said this is the latest they have seen harmful levels since the algae popped up in the state three years ago. Last year levels became harmful in early July, the year before last in late July and now this year in late August – but that doesn’t mean it’s going away.
“It depends on so many factors for it to grow to determine whether it’s going to be more or less, I think this is something we’re going to be used to though,” said Gray.
Gray said this isn’t just a Utah issue, but a nationwide issue and as of now there isn’t a way to stop it.
“Right now they’re looking at ways to decrease nutrient loads but everybody is looking for that answer,” Gray said.
Until a solution comes about, the health department said they’ll keep doing their regular testing so you can keep enjoying the state safely.
“If you are in those areas, avoid getting into the water, keep the pets and animals out, don’t drink the water. You can get in with a canoe or something like that, but it’s the skin contact that we’re mostly concerned with right now,” said Gray.
If you see an algal bloom in a new area, you can report it to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality at 801-536-4123. Current levels and warnings for all Utah waterways can be found on the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s website.