Toxic algae level reaches record high

By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun

Top: Blue-green algae blooms color the beach at Paradise Cove, where the water is showing the highest levels of the toxic algae that the state has ever seen. Bottom: signs warning of toxic algae are posted around the lake’s shoreline.

Public health officials have issued a strong warning advising people and their pets to avoid direct contact with water from Isabella Lake due to record high and dangerous levels of toxic algae that have been found along Isabella’s shorelines.

During a June 29 news conference, Matt Constantine, Director of Kern County Public Health said that test samples of water taken at three popular areas around the lake – Paradise Cove, Kissack Cove and French Gulch – indicate that high levels of blue-green algae exist in the water. For that reason, Constantine issued a warning to water recreationalists to avoid contact with the lake water, especially at the three locations where the presence of the algae toxins were found.

While blue-green algae blooms have occurred during previous years at Isabella Lake, typically with the arrival of warm temperatures, this year the blooms contain record levels of toxins, prompting an urgent warning to boaters, swimmers, fishermen and pets.

“The State indicated to us that these were the highest levels of toxins in the Central Valley since they have been testing,” Constantine said, adding that the testing is relatively new and has occurred for a few years.

The concern from county public health officials is based on the potential health risk from the toxins, which are produced by cyanobacteria. Algae and cyanobacteria are naturally occurring components of freshwater ecosystems; however, when certain conditions exist, such as warm temperatures, stagnant water flows, and excessive nutrients in the water, they multiply rapidly creating the “blooms” that are visible in the main body of Isabella Lake, but more predominantly along the lake’s shorelines. The algae appear blue or green in color, but can also appear as foam on the water’s surface.

It is the algal blooms that produce toxins that pose health risks to people and animals.

Constantine said that water samples collected from Paradise Cove and Kissack Cove contained concentrations of the algae that is 20 to 24 times higher than the level that the state considers dangerous.

Samples were taken from Paradise Cove, Kissack Cove and French Gulch by the Central Valley Water Board on June 19. When the results came back on June 27, the results were alarming to health officials, who were then faced with the task of advising the public of the potential health risk in time for the busy July 4 holiday.

On Friday, June 29, staff from Kern County public health posted warning signs at various locations around the lake.

Red danger signs were posted at Paradise Cove and Kissack Cove. Due to high danger health advisory levels the State recommends against any water contact, including swimming and water skiing.

Yellow caution signs were posted at French Gulch, an area that indicated microcystin detection that was above the state’s cautionary level. Because this level presents a health concern for pets and children, health officials recommend that dogs be kept out of the water and away from the shoreline. Children should be kept out of the shallow shoreline areas where the bloom may be concentrated.

“We are urging people to avoid direct contact with the water, and we are telling people to stay out,” Constantine said. That, he said, means no fishing, no swimming or water skiing where the algae blooms are present.

During last week’s news conference, Supervisor Mick Gleason urged water recreationalists to use common sense while enjoying the lake and avoid the areas where the advisory signs have been posted or where they see the blue-green algae.

According to the health agency, when people are exposed to cyanobacteria and associated toxins, it can cause eye irritation, skin rash, mouth ulcers, vomiting, diarrhea and cold or flu-like symptoms.

While the algae bloom is dangerous for people and can cause severe illness, it is particularly dangerous to dogs and can lead to death. Because dogs tend to drink the water and lick their fur after coming out of the water, their risk of exposure and illness is increased. Symptoms of animal illness include: vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth, and muscle twitching.

Constantine said while he was unaware of any dogs dying in Kern County, there have been reports of dogs dying from exposure to the algae elsewhere in the state.

Constantine said that the advisory will remain until the bloom subsides. Water recreationalists should be aware that the bloom conditions can change, as wind and waves can move the blooms into different areas around the lake.

The California Water Board tested 40 water bodies prior to the July 4 holiday. Isabella Lake was among six bodies of water where harmful algal blooms were found.

Water recreationalists who believe they, or their dogs, have been exposed to the harmful cyanobacteria should seek medical attention.

More information about the algal blooms can be found on the public health website at: kernpublichealth.com.