How Austin’s unusual summer weather spiked toxic algae blooms

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After unseasonably lower temperatures and increased rainfall earlier this summer, Austin residents might notice an uptick in pockets of algae floating around in Lady Bird Lake and other waterways. And they aren’t alone: City leaders monitoring toxic blue-green algae in Austin lakes and reservoirs have noticed the same increase, and are forewarning residents and dog owners of the dangers they present.

“Weather conditions, environmental attributes, all these things are changing,” said Dr. Brent Bellinger with the city, adding: “These conditions out there can change very rapidly, and that’s why it’s important to be very aware and diligent of what you’re seeing.”

Since 2019, the toxic blue-green algae cyanobacteria continues to threaten the health of people and dogs that may come into contact with it. The toxic algae has been linked to higher risks of sickness in dogs compared to humans, as well as the deaths of several dogs in the past two years.

Currently, city officials recommend dog owners don’t let their pets ingest or touch algae in any area lakes, creeks or water bodies. If your dog does go swimming, officials stress owners make sure to rinse them afterward and take them to a veterinarian immediately if they start showing symptoms of illness.

Signs of toxic algae exposure can arise within minutes or hours of exposure and include:

  • Excessive drooling, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Jaundice and hepatomegaly
  • Blood in the urine or dark urine
  • Stumbling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Photosensitization in recovering animals
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Progression of muscle twitches
  • Respiratory paralysis

“For someone that’s recreating, they’re really not going to want to fall off their paddleboard or roll out of their kayak or canoe into these floating mats of plants,” he said. “For dogs, though, there is that concern, because they’re gonna be out there from shore, swimming out, grabbing a ball, and a ball that gets mixed up in this mat material, now the dog’s eating it.”

In response to heightened toxic algae concerns, Austin City Council approved a pilot program in June designed to mitigate the algae growth in local bodies of water. Beginning June 21, Austin’s Watershed Protection Department issued three applications of algae treatment over a nine-week period.

The city continues to test and monitor three sites on Lake Austin and three sites on Lady Bird Lake.

  • The city of Austin will monitor six sites at Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake for blue-green algae presence this summer, including at Red Bud Isle.

Despite an unusual summer and recent spikes on Lady Bird Lake, Bellinger said the program is showing continual progress in hindering algae growth. The original algae hot spot at Red Bud Isle has seen lower levels of toxins, especially compared to the pilot’s launch in June.

Bellinger said his team will collect new sediment samples this week, and will continue monitoring samples and hot spots sites through the spring. From there, city leaders will re-evaluate the pilot program’s progress and consider next steps beyond next summer.

“The toxin contents have remained low compared to when we started the pilot project, and the two samples I took from around Red Bud Isle were lower than samples I took down river,” he said. “Those kinds of things suggests that the Phoslock treatment and what it’s doing with the phosphorus is having an effect on the cyanobacteria growth and toxicity. There’s still a lot more observation and data to collect and analyze on this, but those are still some positive things that we’ve seen.”

To learn more about current algae levels, click here.

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