The Story of Shenandoah Algae

by Brendan Young, Algae Research Specialistalgae-hand

Algae – We all know that it is a natural part of the ecosystem that manifests itself in our waterways. We’ve seen the large hairy strands, bubbly mats, and the greenish hue it turns our rivers, lakes, and other mass bodies of water. Most don’t even consider these changes in the system and write them off as merely “normal occurrences” with no immediate threat. However, that is not the case and over 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio are now experiencing what it is like to be plagued by these algae and the toxins that they release. The
y are unable to bathe, brush their teeth, cook, sterilize medical supplies and most importantly, DRINK.

Algal blooms are largely caused from the over nutrification of the water, a result of excessive Phosphate and Nitrate levels in water from pollution sources like farms with poor practices, fertilizers carried in runoff, and failing septic tanks. With plenty of “food” and appropriate conditions, the algae gorge themselves on theseexcessive nutrients and multiply at an alarming rate.

This might be said to be “all well and done” except for the fact that Blue-Green algae, also known as Cyanobacteria, release harmful toxins into the water column. The People of Toledo, Ohio can testify to what can happen if the over nutrification of our waterways continues.  Algae issues are prevalent throughout the world. In Virginia, Shenandoah Riverkeeper (SRK) has tackled the algae issue head on. We have continuously and publicly requested that the State of Virginia address this ever-growing concern but to no avail. Having witnessed the increase of massive algae blooms throughout the Shenandoah Valley, SRK has begun the initiative to battle what the State would not.

In 2013 I was hired by Shenandoah Riverkeeper to analyze the type of algae in the river, quantify the amount of algae (both Pelagic and Benthic) flowing down stream, identify if there are toxin producing algae present, and calculate the total amount of nutrients retained within the algae itself. The studies stemmed from the concern of fish health and how the toxins released from the algae may have a play in the poor health and even death of the biota within the river, as well as the complaints from local fishermen, land owners, boaters, and visitors whose “good time” was dampened by the algae.

This past spring, we sent 23 algae samples to a laboratory in Florida to aid in the identification of the algae we have been finding in the river. On three occasions, known toxin producing non-beneficial Blue-Green algae were identified as being present in the river. The algae typesidentified as harmful in the Shenandoah are in the same toxin-producing family as the algae now afflicting Toledo, Ohio.

It’s in our water. We drink it. We bathe in it. We eat from it. We rely on it… But what can we do?

Currently the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Jeff Kelble and other staff members, are in negotiations with the state to enforce the Clean Water Act 303(d) regulation that will list the Shenandoah River as an impaired and threatened waterway. This will enable a focused effort to control and remove the substantial amounts of Nitrate and Phosphate, caused by poor land management practices and faulty septic systems, from the river.

Many are making an effort to make the Shenandoah River pristine. It is a river that ties people together; from those who use it for recreation, those who depend on it for living, creatures who rely on it to sustain their lives, and those who simply appreciate it for what it is… beautiful.