AUSTIN (KXAN) — For Austin resident Nicole Warns, Lady Bird Lake is a beloved destination for her yellow lab, Moana. But despite being a water dog who loves some laps around the lake, Warns has been closely monitoring Moana’s swims amid concerns surrounding toxic blue-green algae populating in popular Austin swimming spots.

“Every time she does get wet, it’s a constant concern of like, making sure we wash her off, and you know it’s a risk,” she said. “If she accidentally consumes the water, you’re always anxious about is this the time that she’s going to fall over dead because of it?”

What happens if I consume toxic algae?

While toxic algae is a minor irritant when ingested by humans, its presence can have lethal impacts on dogs. In dogs, symptoms include stumbling and unsteady walking, foaming at the mouth, excessive drooling and muscle twitches.

Within the past two years, Austin has documented several instances of dogs becoming severely sick or dying after coming into contact with algae-filled waters.

How is the city addressing toxic algae blooms?

Since 2019, the city of Austin has seen increased numbers of toxic blue-green algae blooms present in city waterways, resulting in the deaths of several dogs who played in and ingested the compromised water sources. This summer, city officials will monitor six sites at Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake, conducting biweekly tests at popular swimming sites to detect any changes in toxin presence.

The heightened summer testing comes as city leaders are working to approve a pilot program that aims to prevent further algae growth. Dr. Brent Bellinger with the city of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department said funding for the pilot will go before council in mid-June before formally launching this summer, with trial tests conducted at Red Bud Isle.

Courtesy: City of Austin

There would be three applications over the course of nine weeks, starting June 21. For 2021, the cost is $300,000 and includes the material, the application and extensive laboratory testing, according to a city release.

Increased toxic algae blooms can be attributed to a variety of factors, Bellinger said, including certain stressors and environmental changes.

“There’s a lot of development that’s occurring throughout the watershed,” he said. “And that, you know, directly and indirectly contributes sediment and possibly nutrient-rich water.”

But development is not a sole contributor to fluctuations in toxic algae sources. Bellinger added major floods in 2018 and the invasion of zebra mussels are also significant factors, as well as the heightened temperatures commonplace during Texas summers.

Preparing for the summer season

Austin resident Braden Yoder frequently takes his dog, Brownie, to Red Bud Isle. While he said Brownie thankfully doesn’t go into the water too often, the algae presence is still on his radar heading into the summer season.

“It’s obviously really concerning when you hear stories about people’s dogs dying,” he said. “I try to be as careful as I can with her, don’t let her ingest any of the water and all that kind of stuff.”

While city leaders can’t control Texas’s warmer climate, the pending pilot program will apply the phosphorus-binding clay called Phoslock over 20 acres of water around Red Bud Isle. Instead of using an algaecide, or chemical to kill off algae, the Phoslock will starve the algae, depriving it of the necessary nutrients for growth.

The city of Austin has placed signs at several popular waterways throughout the city, warning dog owners about the presence of toxic blue-green algae. (KXAN Photo/Kelsey Thompson)

“There’s still the potential that they will grow, that they could still produce toxins, so we’re going to continue to urge caution throughout the summer,” he said. “But we’re excited about this pilot project and seeing if we can start to bury and remove those nutrients from the system.”

For Warns, she said addressing the issues comes down to a twofold measure reliant on both residential awareness and city leaders tackling this issue head on. With Austin’s triple-digit summers mere weeks away, she said citizens and Austin officials alike need to work together in helping prevent future dog deaths.

“It’s awful to hear about the dogs that have unfortunately passed away — I can’t even imagine that,” Warns said. “It’s a known fact that the algae is directly related to human impact. You know, everything that we’re doing affects the watershed.”