Routt County funds study on toxic algae
February 27, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County Board of Commissioners approved a $5,000 supplemental budget Tuesday to help fund a federal study of the Upper Yampa River Watershed.
Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey will analyze data on nutrient and sediment levels from the watershed to determine the cause of toxic blue-green algae blooms that have been found in nearby water sources, primarily Stagecoach Reservoir, as well as at local ranches.
The study's total estimated cost is $144,500, according to a proposal sent to the commissioners, most of which will be paid for with grants and government funds.
Lyn Halliday, Upper Yampa River Watershed coordinator, said algae blooms are normal, but a mix of factors, including warmer temperatures and changes in nutrient levels, has caused a dangerous proliferation of algae in water sources across the country.
At high enough levels, toxins from such algae can cause illnesses in humans and animals.
In September, a toxic bloom in a reservoir in Oregon contaminated water in the state's capital, Salem. It was the first time in the state's history that algae had caused such an incident.
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Toxin levels were low enough to only pose risks to vulnerable populations, like children, pets or nursing mothers.
The incident sparked an immediate government response. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown even called in the National Guard to distribute clean water to residents.
As a result of the growing issue, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new requirements to water management sites across the country to test for cyanotoxins, the hazardous contaminants produced by blue-green algae blooms.
Nate Johnson, operations manager at the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, said local water samples have so far tested negative for cyanotoxins.
But the cost of conducting these tests was unusually high, he said. The water utility company budgets about $20,000 each year to conduct water sampling for a list of contaminants.
Johnson said testing for cyanotoxins cost the company $12,000, more than half its annual budget, to test for the single contaminant.
Those high costs are exactly what Scott Cowman, Routt County’s environmental health director, hopes to avoid with a study on the causes of algae blooms. If local water managers can better understand the issue, they can take steps to avoid the more costly effort of responding to algae toxins in water sources.
"We are trying to be proactive and stay ahead of potential issues," Cowman said. "We don't want to have to react to a problem."
Some locals have already noticed more prolific algae in nearby water sources.
Halliday has spoken with several Routt County ranchers who have seen algae blooms in their livestock ponds and irrigation systems. She has not yet heard reports of animals getting sick from the water, but added that ever-larger blooms are a cause for concern.
"When you start seeing these prolific blooms, it's a sign that something is out of balance," she said.
The EPA has linked nutrient pollution in water sources to agricultural activity. According to a report, "animal manure, excess fertilizer applied to crops and fields and soil erosion make agriculture one of the largest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the country."
Higher nutrient levels, along with erosion and sediment from upstream waterways, are among the primary factors that the upcoming study will analyze to determine the cause of local algae blooms.
Cowman emphasized that nutrient imbalances could be one among several contributing factors, which points to the need for greater study of local water sources.
In the upcoming study, researchers from the USGS will analyze data collected at 12 sites in the Upper Yampa River Basin over a 23-year period, from 1985 to 2018.
Data collected from that period show that nutrient levels in Stagecoach Reservoir have been increasing, which may explain why the reservoir has had so many algae blooms in the past.
If left unchecked, toxins from the reservoir could spread to downstream waterways and restrict recreational activities like fishing and boating.
Researchers from the USGS plan to publish results from their study in two years, which may lead to changes in local water management.