The public and livestock producers should watch for green to blue-green scum or a gelatinous mass on recreational water and the surface of livestock’s fresh water supplies.
“Algae blooms cause major disruptions, not only because of their offensive odor and appearance; but because they can be fatal to livestock, pets and people,” says North Dakota State University Extension Service water quality associate Roxanne Johnson. “Not all algae blooms are toxic, but without laboratory analysis, it is impossible to identify poisonous species.”
This seasonal event is not really algae; rather, it is photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria that rely on sunlight for energy. As they store energy, they create a tiny cavity of air that allows them to move up and down in the water to areas with more nutrients.
As environmental conditions improve with warm weather, calm winds and abundant nutrients (particularly phosphorus and nitrogen), the bacteria numbers increase. A “bloom” of green or blue-green algae on the surface of the water may appear overnight and be accompanied by an unmistakable musty, earthy or putrid odor.
“As cyanobacteria break down, they release toxins that can be an irritant to human skin and potentially lethal to animals,” Johnson explains.
Concentrations of algae develop as the wind moves the toxin to the leeward, or downward, shore, where you may find evidence of toxicity, such as dead mice, snakes and other animals near the water’s edge. Toxicity is dependent on the species consuming the water, and the concentration and the amount of water ingested.
Blue-green algae produce two toxins, each with different symptoms. Signs of neurotoxin poisoning usually appear 15 to 20 minutes after ingestion. In animals, symptoms include weakness, staggering, difficulty in breathing, convulsions and ultimately death. In humans, symptoms may include numbness of the lips, tingling in fingers and toes, and dizziness.
Signs of liver poisoning may take hours or days to appear. Liver toxins can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting in humans and death in animals.
Most blooms are obvious to the naked eye; however, blue-green algae can be present in water without a visible bloom, Johnson says. She advises livestock producers to treat their water if they’ve had blooms.
Treatments include using an aeration/mixing device to create turbulence in the water and minimizing nutrient levels by establishing vegetated buffer strips around the water to intercept and trap nutrients and sediments.