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Playing It Safe: State Departments Test Waters For Algae

State environmental officials began testing water in state parks and recreation areas Monday for high algae levels.

  • Visitors at Paynetown Recreation Area on Lake Monroe are advised to “swim at your own risk.” The absence of lifeguards and the potential presence of harmful algae in the water combine to give patrons cause for caution.

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    Photo: Rachel Morello

    Visitors at Paynetown Recreation Area on Lake Monroe are advised to “swim at your own risk.” The absence of lifeguards and the potential presence of harmful algae in the water combine to give patrons cause for caution.

  • Indiana Department of Environmental Management Intern Amari Farren (left) and Crew Member Steve Boswell head to the waters of Lake Monroe Monday to gather samples for algae testing.

    Image 2 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    Indiana Department of Environmental Management Intern Amari Farren (left) and Crew Member Steve Boswell head to the waters of Lake Monroe Monday to gather samples for algae testing.

  • IDEM members gather water samples in Lake Monroe to be used for algae testing. Farren, left, holds a stainless steel bucket into which Boswell releases water drawn up through a tube. The team gathers three samples in each swimming area it tests to ensure a composite sample.

    Image 3 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    IDEM members gather water samples in Lake Monroe to be used for algae testing. Farren, left, holds a stainless steel bucket into which Boswell releases water drawn up through a tube. The team gathers three samples in each swimming area it tests to ensure a composite sample.

  • During the summer, water samples are collected on Mondays and Tuesdays, after which they are sent to an Indianapolis lab for toxin analysis. Turnaround for results is usually within a week.

    Image 4 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    During the summer, water samples are collected on Mondays and Tuesdays, after which they are sent to an Indianapolis lab for toxin analysis. Turnaround for results is usually within a week.

  • Corky Prast, Crew Chief for Cyanobacteria Testing, dons rubber gloves to transfer lake water from its collection bucket into sample tubes. While his team was collecting water, he recorded “field parameters” – information about water and meteorological conditions.

    Image 5 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    Corky Prast, Crew Chief for Cyanobacteria Testing, dons rubber gloves to transfer lake water from its collection bucket into sample tubes. While his team was collecting water, he recorded “field parameters” – information about water and meteorological conditions.

  • Farren pours all the water collected from the lake into a tub for churning.

    Image 6 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    Farren pours all the water collected from the lake into a tub for churning.

  • Boswell, right, churns the water slowly while Prast draws his sample into a bottle out of a spigot at the bottom of the machine.

    Image 7 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    Boswell, right, churns the water slowly while Prast draws his sample into a bottle out of a spigot at the bottom of the machine.

  • Prast adds a dye solution to one of his test bottles. His crew will fill two bottles at every test site – one to be preserved for biologists to identify and count cells, and the other to be sent to Indianapolis for toxin analysis.

    Image 8 of 8

    Photo: Rachel Morello

    Prast adds a dye solution to one of his test bottles. His crew will fill two bottles at every test site – one to be preserved for biologists to identify and count cells, and the other to be sent to Indianapolis for toxin analysis.

Arthur Fagen swims at the Paynetown Recreation Area on Lake Monroe almost every day in the summer. A few laps of sidestroke, some backstroke, but not much with his head in the water, he says, “just to play it safe.”

Fagen says he has never encountered any issues with the water, but he’s not taking any chances.

“There’s not that much boating, you don’t sense that there’s that much gasoline in the water, so the water should be fairly clean, one would think, but I’m not sure,” he says.

State environmental officials began their annual evaluation of state parks and recreation areas Monday to check algae levels in the water. It is a collaborative effort between the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Department of Natural Resources, and State Department of Health.

A crew from IDEM began at the Paynetown Recreation Area, the first of fifteen stops they will make over an initial two weeks of sampling. The same areas will be tested monthly, unless findings indicate a need for a closer look.

Corky Prast, Crew Chief for Cyanobacteria Testing, will gather samples with his team to send for analytical work in Indianapolis. Turnaround time takes about a week. The results will be transferred to the DNR and posted on algae.in.gov by early afternoon Friday.

“It is a national project now, not just Indiana’s doing it, but we try to take it a step farther and at least heading to our state beaches, as many as we can get done,” Prast says.

Prast’s boss, Cyndi Wagner, is the Chief of Targeted Monitoring Section with IDEM. She says algae testing typically starts in mid-June to coincide with the height of the recreational season, even though blooms can occur year round.

“We notice them most in the summertime because that’s when we are actually out using the water resource,” says Wagner. “Most of the blue-green algae really like warm water temperatures, but there are some that can withstand colder water.”

Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, are found in freshwater. The algae grow best in hot, dry, calm weather, which is a typical summer day for Indiana.

In addition to sunlight and warm weather, nutrient sources such as nitrogen and phosphorus in particular contribute to explosive algal growth. These nutrients can find their way to the water from septic systems, pet waste and fertilizer.

“We generally tell people that if they’re living on a developed lake with respect to a lot of homes, then the use of lawn fertilizers that contain phosphorus is probably the cause for the algal problems in the lake,” Wagner says.

Algae is usually harmless, but the concentrated presence of blue-green algae can be linked to some adverse health effects. Human exposure can lead to rashes, skin or eye irritation, and nausea.

The State Department of Health says swimmers can avoid most problems by avoiding contact with visible algae and not swallowing water.

The algae can be toxic to pets. Toxins produced in blooms like the blue-green algae can damage a pets nervous system or liver. Dogs are especially susceptible, as the scum can easily attach to their coats and get ingested as they clean themselves. Last July, veterinarians cited cyanobacteria in the deaths of two dogs within 24 hours of their dip in Northern Indiana’s Salamonie Reservoir.

The State Board of Animal Health urges all pet owners to make sure their animals are hydrated before coming in contact with lake water. They also suggest rinsing pets afterwards.

There is no way to prevent the algae from growing, and Wagner says identifying and eliminating its blooms will simply take time.

“It’s a process that did not occur overnight, and it’s a process that’s not going to get better overnight.”

Corky Prast agrees, adding that we may never find what’s in our water until it finds us first.

“There [are] good algae and bad algae, and the smarter we get and the longer it goes, I’d assume we’ll see other things in the water that might scare us later on.”

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