Be careful where you swim locally Labor Day weekend

Klamath River, some lagoons have harmful algae blooms

A Yurok Tribe environmental scientist holds a sample of toxic algae over the Klamath River. Harmful algal blooms return to the area generally from mid-August to mid-September, making it unsafe to swim in the river. (Contributed by the Yurok Tribe)
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It’s that time of year again. Harmful algal blooms are back and making it unsafe to swim in some of the local waterways this Labor Day weekend.

The state Water Quality Monitoring Council has warned that the waters at Stone Lagoon Beach in Orick have a dangerous level of harmful algal blooms. It issued a warning about swimming in Big Lagoon County Park in Trinidad, where toxic algae has been detected but not at as high levels as Stone Lagoon. The council cautions against recreating in the Klamath River above the Trinity River confluence and downstream of Iron Gate Reservoir, which along with Copco Reservoir, has dangerous levels of toxic algae.

“Horrifically, there’s a large number of water bodies we’re not supposed to go swimming in because of these blooms,” said Craig Tucker, an environmental consultant.

Not all forms of algae are toxic, but the Klamath River, in particular, is home to the Microcystis aeruginosa, which secretes the liver toxin microcystin. Since kids and dogs are more likely to swallow water than adults, they’re more vulnerable to getting sick from the toxin.

That sickness can present itself in a variety of ways, from skin rashes to liver failure. There have been reports of some dogs falling ill and even dying shortly after swimming in a body of water suspected to have toxic algae, states a news release from the state Water Resources Control Board.

For adults, being exposed to toxic algae is “kind of like smoking cigarettes,” Tucker said.

“One cigarette won’t kill you,” Tucker said, “but smoking two packs a day over a long time might.”

Being exposed to large amounts at one time can also make an adult sick, he said.

“Microcystin survives really well in warm, still water that’s nutrient-rich,” said Susan Fricke, water resources coordinator with the Karuk Tribe.

Iron Gate and Copco reservoirs have taken a free-flowing river and turned it into warm, nutrient-rich bathtub, Fricke said. The algal blooms start in the reservoirs and then discharge into the river, she said.

The Upper Klamath is volcanic and thus naturally high in nitrogen and phosphorous, but the density of nutrients in the river has increased with the construction of dams and as the land uses have changed.

Before the surrounding wetlands used to act like a sponge that would filter out those nutrients, Fricke said, but since those wetlands have been drained, that process can no longer take place.

Fertilizers used in agriculture also add more nutrients to the system, Tucker said. Yet there are efforts in place to restore the river to a more natural state, such as creating small treatment wetlands and restoring the areas around the rivers, Fricke said.

“Getting rid of the dams will greatly improve the water quality,” Fricke said.

The dams have a big impact on water quality, change the water dynamics, affect the dissolved oxygen levels available to aquatic life and more, and impact the way nutrients interact, she said.

This isn’t just bad for people looking to recreate in the water, but it’s especially bad for the members of the Karuk Tribe, who are in the middle of the World Renewal Ceremony at the height of the harmful algal blooms. Medicine men are supposed to bathe in and drink from the river for the ceremony, but they can no longer do that because the water is contaminated.

“It’s poisoned a sacred place for the Karuk people,” Tucker said. “It’s not just a health issue, it’s also a cultural problem.”

These ceremonies are very place- and time-dependent, Fricke said. You can’t change the location to where there are no toxic algae blooms or push the date forward or backward a few weeks.

“That’s not how these ceremonies work,” Fricke said.

The problem of harmful algal blooms ultimately impacts everyone though, Fricke said. She recently spoke to people from China and New Zealand at a conference who are experiencing the same thing.

“What we’re finding is this is a statewide, nationwide and worldwide issue,” Fricke said. “And it’s only going to get worse as we have issues with climate change.”

To view the locations and severity levels of the harmful algal blooms, go to shorturl.at/jntyQ.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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