Satellite data a boon for Lake officials studying toxic algal blooms

Lake County water officials this summer will, for the first time, gain access to satellite data that could help them better track, predict and understand the potentially toxic algal blooms that plague Clear Lake and other freshwater bodies throughout the nation.

“This really is huge,” Carolyn Ruttan, invasive species program coordinator with the Lake County Department of Water Resources, said of the new, multiagency, national research program.

The $3.6 million, five-year program ­— a joint effort of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey — is aimed at protecting the public from potentially harmful blooms of cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, in fresh water, officials said Tuesday when they announced the study. Similar, but not nearly as extensive, test studies have been conducted in Florida and Maryland, officials said.

Most cyanobacteria are merely irksome and smelly — they can clog waterways and produce a pungent, sewage-like odor that keeps tourists at bay. But a few types can produce toxins under certain, poorly understood circumstances, Ruttan said.

Cyanobacteria toxins caused the deaths of dogs in California, Maryland, Indiana, New York and Oklahoma in 2012, according to Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer with NOAA. A coroner in Wisconsin in 2002 ruled the toxins caused a boy’s death, he reported in an article for Earthzine.


They’ve also been linked with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a deadly, degenerative neurological illness, Ruttan noted.

Algal blooms in the United States annually cost an estimated $64 million in added water treatment costs, recreational losses and losses in real estate values, according to NOAA.

The new research effort will help local and state agencies decide when to post warnings for people to stay out of the lake and help water providers decide when they need to beef up their filtration systems for drinking water, NOAA officials said.

The new program will take place in stages, beginning with the release this summer of existing data and images collected by a sensor on the Envisat satellite from 2002 to 2012, Stumpf said.

Ruttan will be among those with early access to the data, he said. Training in the use of the data will be held in California in the spring, he said.

At the end of the year, a new data-collecting satellite — the Sentinel-3, will be launched, followed in two years, then five years by additional satellites, Stumpf said.

The historical data will help officials figure out what may be triggering the cyanobacteria blooms, and the newer information will help predict and locate future blooms, Ruttan said.

The data won’t indicate whether the cyanobacteria in Clear Lake is toxic, but will help her decide where on the 63-square-mile lake to collect test samples to make that determination, she said. Ruttan said she currently relies largely on people who live near the lake to provide her with that information.

The historical and new data could go a long way to figuring out what causes the cyanobacteria to periodically proliferate and inundate portions of the lake with scum and green goo. Scientists have their suspicions, but there’s a lot to learn about cyanobacteria, one of the oldest and most ubiquitous organisms on earth, she said. There are possibly millions of different types of the organism, which exists not only in water, but in ice and deserts, Ruttan said.

“This is the organism that created the earth’s oxygen. It’s why we exist today,” she said. That so little is known about it, “is frustrating for me as a scientist,” Ruttan said.


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