Algae Bloom Is Water Warning
Ohio River outbreak left suppliers scrambling
20 October 2015
By John Seewer, Associated Press Writer
A toxic algae outbreak that snaked more than 600 miles down the
Ohio River past four states is forcing water utilities to reassess
the threat from harmful algal blooms that are popping up
increasingly around the nation.
Treatment plant operators and researchers along the river were
surprised by the large bloom and said it should be a warning to
cities that get their water supply from lakes, rivers and manmade
"You need to be ready and have a plan in place," said Roger
Tucker, who monitors algae sampling for the Louisville Water Co.
in Kentucky. "The Ohio River is proof of that."
Algae coats a rock on the banks of the Ohio River on Friday in
The bloom appears to be winding down now, two months after being
detected in the middle of August. It made its way from Wheeling,
West Virginia, and past Cincinnati and Louisville, setting off
warnings about boating and fishing in the river. Organizers
canceled a swim from Cincinnati to northern Kentucky.
What surprised many along the river was the unprecedented size and
level of toxins detected in some areas - well above those found
recently in algae-plagued western Lake Erie.
The last toxic bloom on the river came in 2008. But that one
covered about 30 miles and lasted a couple weeks.
This year, toxins produced by the algae didn't contaminate any
municipal supplies along the river, which provides drinking water
to about 5 million people. But utilities did spend more money to
fight off the toxins that can cause rashes, diarrhea, vomiting and
Cincinnati spent $7,700 more per day in much of September to add
chemicals to tap water. And the company that provides water to
Huntington, West Virginia, brought in new testing equipment and
temporary pumps and pipes just in case it needed to draw from
Researchers say conditions this year were just right for the
outbreak: Heavy rains in the early summer washed algae-feeding
pollutants into the river, and a dry late-summer slowed down the
"When you have months without much rainfall, the river really
becomes a series of lakes," said Jeff Swertfeger, head of water
quality for the Greater Cincinnati Water Works.
Usually, the river flows too fast for algae blooms to develop. But
as the river slows, it stirs up less sediment and allows more
sunlight to penetrate the water and fuel the algae growth.
"The river changes year to year. This is the worst anyone has ever
seen it," Swertfeger said. "We don't expect it again and again.
But we know it can happen."
Algae blooms are more common in lakes and reservoirs where the
water is calm - a year ago one in Lake Erie fouled the drinking
water in Toledo for more than two days.
Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, has said that harmful algal blooms are one of the nation's
most serious and growing environmental challenges. Scientists say
climate change and higher levels of nutrients such as phosphorus
may be why they're seeing a rising number of algae contamination
But not all blooms are toxic, said Gary Fahnenstiel, an algae
expert with Michigan Technological University's Great Lakes
Research Center. Still, a huge bloom on the Ohio River should be a
wakeup call, he said. "What we've learned is these things are
increasing," Fahnenstiel said.
At the outset of this year's outbreak on the river, one water
utility was surprised, thinking toxic algae was a problem limited
to lakes, said Greg Youngstrom, an environmental specialist with
the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which watches
over the river's health.