On July 15 a northern Indiana couple, Marge and Larry Young, took their family’s four dogs to play at the Salamonie Reservoir in Huntington County. Two of the dogs died within 24 hours, the two others recovered after receiving treatment for liver failure.
The cause of the dogs’ illness was blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. The algae can produce toxins that may be fatal if swallowed and cause rashes on human skin. They grow in warm, nutrient-rich calm water, like many Indiana lakes and reservoirs in summer.
Indiana officials have known about the growing threat from the algae for more than a decade, but their response has been lethargic. In the summer of 2009 the legislative environmental study committee was warned about the seriousness of the problem. Its response: tell state agencies to come up with a strategy to deal with the problem but don’t provide any extra money to solve it.
So for the past three years the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), the state health department and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have watched the problem get worse. This summer IDEM tested for the algae at 13 state-managed lakes and reservoirs. By mid-August it was finding unsafe levels at all of them. Citizens Water samples the three Indianapolis reservoirs; all had high algae levels throughout August. IUPUI’s Center for Earth and Environmental Science found unsafe levels in Patoka Reservoir in the Hoosier National Forest.
You can check the test results and learn more about blue-green algae on this website. The Board of Animal Health also has a rather frightening web page about the threat to pets and livestock. The DNR has warnings on its website and puts up signs at some recreational locations, including the Salamonie Reservoir. However, there was no sign where the Youngs took their dogs to play.
When the state is finding unsafe algae levels everywhere it looks, it stands to reason that many, if not most, untested lakes in the state also have high levels of algae. Besides a mediocre job of informing people about the problem, what else is the state doing? Not much.
While a lot is still unknown about blue-green algae, we do know that reducing phosphorus in water would inhibit their growth. Two years ago IDEM began the process to create phosphorus limits in lakes and reservoirs. Last year it convened a work group to discuss ways to address the problem and held seven meetings. Representatives from agriculture and municipal sewage treatment plants, which are two leading phosphorus sources, joined environmentalists and others to discuss the costs of limiting phosphorus loadings to water and ways to reduce them.
Then IDEM halted the work group meetings. The department says it wants to think about what it has heard from the stakeholders. It doesn’t expect to pass a phosphorus criteria rule until the second half of 2014.
IDEM has placed some phosphorus restrictions on the manure from confined feeding operations that is spread on crop fields, but since it won’t allow public access to information about where, when and how much manure is going on the ground and into our waters, we won’t know what, if any, effect those restrictions will have.
Hard as it may be to believe for anyone who has followed our state government’s recent inaction on the environment, back in the early 1970s when non-toxic types of algae were choking the nation’s waters, Indiana was the first state to ban phosphorus in laundry detergents. Four years ago the legislature banned phosphorus in dishwasher detergents. But in its past two sessions, the legislature has refused to act on a bill to ban phosphorus from lawn fertilizer, which is a major and unnecessary source of the pollutant.
What will it take to get our state leaders to do something meaningful about toxic algae? More dead animals, maybe a few sick children, or lots of angry voters telling their lawmakers to get the government to do its job of protecting people and animals.