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Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Dog owners take note: Toxic algae early warning system is in the works

Monday, July 13, 2020 by Mose Buchele, KUT

The heat of summer is here and that means toxic blue-green algae may return to Austin lakes and creeks. Last year, at least five dogs died after swimming in parts of Lady Bird Lake containing the algae. This year, the city is developing an early warning system to let people know when conditions are ripe for a deadly bloom.

Brent Bellinger, lead reservoir ecologist for the city’s Watershed Protection Department, said the warning system will help notify people of algae risk in the same way they are notified of wildfire risk.

“We don’t see any wildfires right now,” he said, “but it’s dry, it’s hot, so take appropriate precautions.”

But how will the city know when to issue a red flag warning for algae blooms?

To determine that risk, the city is looking at factors, including water temperature, the presence of nutrients in the water and how much flow is coming downstream from the Tom Miller Dam.

Not all algae produce toxic cyanobacteria, Bellinger said, so water and algae samples will be subject to a genetic analysis, done in partnership with researchers at UT Austin, to detect “the suite of genes necessary for producing toxins.”

“They’re extracting the water and the algae itself and analyzing for the toxins,” he explained.

Some of the information used to assess risk is already available on the city’s algae warning website. But the site will soon be updated to help people make sense of what the data mean.

“We’re working on developing a dashboard, kind of modeled after what the city’s put together with Covid,” Bellinger said.

He expects the dashboard to include the current stage of risk, graphs displaying the information and maps showing the location of testing sites on the lake.

The city will be taking samples and updating the site weekly through the summer and fall. Results from the first batch of water samples are due to be posted sometime next week.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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