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Photo by Claire McInerny/KUT

Barton Creek, Sculpture Falls closed to swimmers and pets after toxins found in the water

Monday, September 27, 2021 by Mose Buchele, KUT

The city of Austin confirmed the presence of poisonous algae toxins in Barton Creek after at least one swimmer got sick. The city is warning people not to go in the water as long as the dangerous algae remain.

Dogs and other animals can also be affected and should be kept away.

The city collected dangerous levels of a toxin called cylindrospermopsin in the Sculpture Falls swimming area of Barton Creek on Sept. 9 after officials were informed about a person getting sick. The results of the sample came back on Sept. 22. Sculpture Falls is a popular location for swimming and recreation located on Barton Creek near MoPac Expressway and Loop 360.

Cylindrospermopsin can cause kidney and liver damage. The Environmental Protection Agency says symptoms of exposure to the toxin can include fever, headache, vomiting and bloody diarrhea.

Austin has been dealing with an increase in toxic algae blooms for the last few years, ever since heavy rains pushed massive amounts of runoff into local waterways. Those toxins have killed several dogs, but up until now, there were no confirmed cases of humans being affected.

Cylindrospermopsin is a different toxin from what has previously turned up in city tests. Officials say it may be more risky for swimmers because it was found in the water itself, not just inside algae in the water.

“Because this is out in the water, the chances for ingestion are a lot higher relative to the other toxin, which requires basically a consumption of the algae itself,” said Brent Bellinger, lead reservoir ecologist for the city.

Because cylindrospermopsin had not previously been found in Austin, it took longer than usual for test results to come back, Bellinger said. Now that it’s confirmed, Austin’s Watershed Protection Department plans to monitor the area with tests that return results within “one or two” days.

If two consecutive tests reveal no toxins in the water, the city will reopen the creek. But, even after that, swimmers should exercise caution, never drink the water and always check for algae.

“The algae could bounce back without us necessarily catching that after getting a couple negative results,” Bellinger said. “These are natural streams. There’s a lot of reasons why you don’t want to drink this water. This just gets added to the list.”

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

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