Bill would support algal bloom research, potentially help Pinto Lake

WATSONVILLE >> Toxic algal blooms polluting rivers and lakes is an emerging water quality issue. In California, decentralized monitoring efforts make it difficult for scientists to conduct sufficient research for creating health standards.

Toxic blue-green algae blooms give water an antifreeze hue and emit a rank stench. Although not always dangerous, blooms sometimes breed toxic cyanobacteria, which can sicken people and kill wildlife.

An Assembly bill introduced Thursday would create a multiagency task force that better coordinates research and brings more funding from Proposition 1, which authorizes $7.5 billion in water bonds to alleviate the state’s current water woes.

“This bill is a direct response to the city of Watsonville’s experience at Pinto Lake,” said Assemblyman Luis ALejo, D-Watsonville, who authored the bill with Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, D-Carmel.

The legislation is the latest salvo in ongoing research efforts for Pinto Lake by UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay researchers. They’ve found toxic algae in the Santa Cruz and Monterey wharfs, Elkhorn Slough, Corralitos Creek, and the Carmel, Salinas and Pajaro rivers, which lead into the bay.

But the worst is Pinto Lake, which has the highest recorded levels of toxic algae in the state, and perhaps in the country. At 2.8 million parts per billion, its levels are more than 3 million times the health risk guidance limit of 0.8 parts per billion.

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“When that report came back, my jaw hit the floor,” said Robert Ketley, Watsonville’s water quality program manager who helped write AB 300.

Toxic blooms killed more than 30 endangered southern sea otters in the Monterey Bay, three pet dogs last month in the East Bay’s Lake Chabot and countless waterfowl in Watsonville in 2012.

“Birds were flying into cars and buildings all across town,” Ketley said. “The birds’ livers disintegrated and bits got into the blood stream reached the brain.”

AB 300 is sponsored by the city of Watsonville and the Karuk Tribe in Northern California.

On the Klamath River, Indian tribes have been battling blooms that threaten fisheries resources and religious ceremonies. Children are especially at risk, Tucker said, because they can’t read the posted health warnings, which are based on an informally agreed upon level of toxicity.

“AB 300 would give us the financing to get clear standards for drinking water and recreation,” said Craig Tucker of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. The Klamath Basin Monitoring Program, a collaboration between Indian tribes, the regional water board, university researchers and nonprofits, has been praised for doing a comprehensive job.

Elsewhere, the state Water Resources Control Board’s regional offices, university research programs and local agencies test individually but don’t share their findings seamlessly.

“There’s no formal process for the state to deal with toxic blooms, so it’s been more of people calling each other up to talk about this,” said Karen Worcester, senior environmental scientist with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Looking at Oregon and Florida as models, California’s water board already has begun creating a statewide network rolling out this year. AB 300 could provide the effort necessary funding.

“Basically we would train and provide tools to local agencies to determine if algal blooms are a problem and put the information in a single system,” Worcester said. “Having a centralized database would be a huge step forward for asking more interesting questions about what we don’t know.”

Scientists say the ongoing drought and climate change likely will exacerbate the problem. Algae occur naturally. Blooms occur when phosphorous from development washes into the water, and flourish when rivers and lakes dry up. Less water leads to higher water temperatures and higher concentrations of the nutrients that feed blooms.

“The state is actually being proactive about this,” said Raphael Kudela, UC Santa Cruz ocean sciences professor studying Lake Pinto. “It may not be a problem now, but it could be.”

 

Photo: A fisherman motors his skiff away from the dock Friday morning at Pinto Lake in Watsonville where toxic algae blooms have plagued the popular recreation spot. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

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