toxic algae

Triathletes get an assist from the Clean Water Act

 

by Elizabeth Gaige

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

My husband’s passion for the sport of triathlon began in the Schuylkill River, when we both competed – swimming, biking, and running – in the 2012 Philly Triathlon. Part of the draw of triathlon is the opportunity to swim in lakes and rivers – like the Schuylkill – that aren’t usually open to recreational swimmers for safety reasons.

Although our family and friends didn’t understand why we enjoyed our Schuylkill swim, it was simple – this part of the race was calm and beautiful, with a small current providing some free speed. And, we had peace of mind even in the middle of a grueling race, because the Philadelphia Water Department RiverCast website gave us vital information about river conditions.

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

After the Philly Tri, my husband chose to make IRONMAN Louisville his first full distance IRONMAN race – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a 26.2 mile marathon run. But, as we packed the car for his race, advisories from the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection appeared on social media and we realized the race that might only include two of three parts that the athletes had trained for.

A harmful algal bloom had formed on the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia weeks earlier and the effects of elevated toxins produced by the algae were being evaluated hundreds of miles downstream. Elevated nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, warm sunny days and slower-moving water fuel algal growth.  Fortunately, October’s cooler temperatures and precipitation began to flush algae and toxins from the Ohio River. To the relief of many hopeful triathletes, the recreational advisory for the swim course was lifted days before the race as multiple water quality test results showed toxins falling below Kentucky’s threshold.

On race day, 2,300 triathletes experienced first-hand the “swimmable” part of the Clean Water Act’s goals. I welcomed my Ironman at the finish line 13 hours and 52 minutes after he jumped into the Ohio River, thankful that the Clean Water Act is there to protect the nearly half-million triathletes that count on safe water for swimming at thousands of events each year.

 

About the Author: Elizabeth Gaige works in EPA’s Air Protection Division in Philadelphia.  She has completed 88 races since 2003, 16 of which involved open water swimming!

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Keeping Pets—and People—Safe from Toxic Algae

Visible green slime in Lake Needwood during harmful algal bloom outbreak in September 2012.

By Patty Scott

Two years ago, our family planned to take our Yellow Labrador puppy Fiona to Lake Needwood near our home in Rockville, Maryland for a swim. Our puppy needed somewhere to exercise and the scenic lake near Rock Creek Park seemed like the perfect place. My husband, however, mentioned something about a warning for a harmful algal bloom. At the time, I had just started working on EPA’s National Lakes Assessment, the agency’s report card on the condition of the nation’s lakes, and thankfully knew about the dangers of harmful algal blooms. Blue-green algae can produce harmful toxins that can be fatal if ingested. Since people are not allowed to swim in Lake Needwood, the dangers are not as great for humans. However, dogs are especially at risk if they swim in or drink the water. We decided against taking Fiona anywhere near the lake.

While Montgomery County did not know the cause of the outbreaks in Lake Needwood, harmful algal blooms are often triggered by excessive levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Many of our lakes, rivers, streams and bays are becoming overloaded with nutrients from a wide range of sources. Excess nutrients spur the growth of algae to the point where they can explode into vast — and sometimes toxic — colonies of slime. Algal blooms often peak during the summer months, but in some parts of the country they occur year round.

Nutrient pollution is a growing concern because it threatens public health, recreation and our economy. National data is not easy to find on impacts to our four-legged friends, but sadly dog deaths have been reported due to harmful algae.

Warning sign advising residents and their pets to avoid direct contact with the water at Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Like many pet owners, we treat Fiona and Jake, our other lab, like part of our family, and we’d be devastated to lose them. It’s best to keep pets away from the water anytime there is visible surface scum, if the water is discolored or if there is a strong musty smell. Also, keep in mind that not all waters are monitored. You can check EPA’s new How’s My Waterway app to find out about the condition of your local waterway and whether it’s been tested.

Everyone can help make a difference. One easy way to combat algae is to take care not to over-fertilize. And always remember to pick up pet waste. To learn more about how you can prevent nutrient pollution, visit

About the author: Patty Scott works in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds on communications and outreach.  She loves fishing, kayaking, cycling and other outdoor pursuits.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.