Oregon algae blooms to be monitored less

GRANTS PASS — The Oregon Health Authority will be paying less attention to toxic algae blooms in rivers and lakes after a federal grant expired.

The agency will continue to issue warnings that tell Oregonians to stay out of some lakes, but it will have fewer resources to keep track of water samples and do public education, said environmental toxicologist David Farrer.

There will also be fewer public outreach efforts and less money for materials.

The funding amounted to about $150,000 a year, which covered two employees, travel and materials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said grants went to nine states for five years to help build public awareness on harmful algae blooms.

The focus of the grants was to gather data for a project to monitor illness from harmful blooms, spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said.

Experts say harmful algae blooms have been increasing worldwide, driven by warmer temperatures and more frequent rainstorms related to global warming. The rainstorms wash nutrients such as nitrogen into the waterways. The nitrogen comes from excess fertilizer on farmland, leaky septic systems around waterways, water treatment plants, livestock feed lots, and even smog.

"This gives us even more reason to tighten the knobs on nutrient inputs into these bloom-sensitive waters," said Hans Paerl, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While the grant was in force, Oregon posted 14 toxic algae warnings in 2008, 20 in 2009, 21 in 2010, 18 in 2011, nine in 2012 and nine so far this year. The warnings tend to peak in late summer, when temperatures and hours of sunlight are high, Farrer said.

Increased public awareness may account for the initial increase in warnings, but it's not clear why the number fell in recent years.

"So many water bodies just aren't monitored, either because they are too small, no one is in charge or they are too remote," Farrer said. "It's hard to tell if all the increase we saw was just increased awareness or there were actually more blooms going on."

Blue-green algae is one of the most ancient forms of life on Earth. Billions of years ago it began separating oxygen from water, to create the atmosphere we depend on today, said Paerl. In its evolution, some varieties produced a toxin that is harmful to people and animals.

Scientists disagree on the role of the toxins various algae produce, but they are harmful to people and animals, particularly livestock and wildlife, which are more likely to drink from a lake or river with algae than a person is. Recently, wildlife authorities blamed the deaths of 100 elk in New Mexico on toxic algae.

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