Hot, dry weather fuels spread of toxic algae, beach closures

Dangerous, toxic algae blooms have now been detected in nine Washington lakes, seven of which are in the western portion of the state, raising concerns for human and pet safety.

Frequent hot and dry weather in western Washington is taking its toll on local lakes and beaches, providing the perfect breeding grounds for dangerous, toxic algae.

Hicklin Park in Seattle is a recent addition to the ever-growing list of lake and beach closures in recent weeks.

Nearby residents and visitors typically flock to the park to enjoy picnic tables, a playground, a Frisbee golf course, a walking path and either some fishing or swimming in the lake.

“This area is really cool; it’s peaceful,” said Carmen Ochoa as she jogged along the walking path with her two preteen daughters and baby.

They come to Hicklin Park almost every day, but this was the first time they noticed a few bright yellow signs peppering the exterior of the shores.

The sign reads: “WARNING. Toxic algae in lake. Lake unsafe for people and pets.”

“I only see this one that is right here in the corner, and there’s another one by the playground, but it’s like inside the trees, so you basically don’t see it,” Ochoa said as she nudged her head toward a single sign. “I mean, I would like to see it close to where people are playing.”

“It’s disgusting,” Ochoa said as she turned her attention to the water. “It’s really, really dirty. … It looks really dirty.”

Another sign at Hicklin Park lists off what is and is not allowed.

No swimming, no drinking, keep pets and livestock away, and avoid areas of scum when boating. Fishing is allowed so long as the fish is cleaned and the guts are discarded.

These signs can be found at nine lakes in Washington that are now closed due to cyanobacteria. The others include Tanwax Lake, Anderson Lake, Gibbs Lake, Hourglass Pong, Lake Marcel, Lone Lake, Rufus Woods Lake, and Spanaway Lake.

“This is one of the very localized impacts of climate change that we’re going to feel in our day-to-day lives,” said Colleen Keltz, the communications manager with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The algae can vary in color and consistency. At Hicklin Lake, the toxic algae (also known as cyanobacteria, harmful algae, or blue-green algae) appears as a rust-colored paint slick.

“Just like how it has many names, it can look many different ways, so you might see, you know, like a red-brown paint spill looking sort of scene on your lake. Or it could be like pea soup; it could be blue, green,” said Keltz.

The blue-green algae are caused by a perfect mix of hot days, dry conditions, and a boost in nutrients, mainly phosphorous.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the algae make humans sick and can be fatal for pets.

People may experience a wide range of symptoms from gastrointestinal discomforts — such as stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhea — to general skin, eye, nose or throat irritation. It can also cause headaches, muscle weakness and dizziness.

However, when it comes to animals, the algae can cause extreme sickness or even death in a matter of hours — or in some instances, days.

According to the Department of Ecology, bacteria are naturally occurring. They go away naturally as well, predominantly when there is inclement weather.

Local departments perform testing regularly. The warning signs go up as soon as a bloom is detected.

“Bottom line: Do people need to be concerned?” KIRO 7 reporter Elle Thomas asked Keltz.

“People need to pay attention, you know, when they’re getting in the water. Look and see if there’s anything that seems unusual,” Keltz said. “Look at the signage around, you know, if you’re seeing signs posted, then be thoughtful of those.”

Still, for those who frequent these spaces, like Ochoa and her three girls, the signs bring little peace of mind.

“They don’t have a lot of signs about [the bacteria], so, I mean, it would be a good idea that they have [more] or they clean [the lake] up or they give us an idea of why we can’t go there,” Ochoa said.

“To be honest, it’s kind of like, they should have people around here to tell us what is going on,” Ochoa continued.

If you or your pet are experiencing toxic algal bloom poisoning, call your doctor or veterinarian immediately.

If you think you see a bloom, take a picture of it and send it to your local health department. A list of contact information by location can be found HERE.

Blooms can also be reported to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

An up-to-date list of active algae blooms can be found on the Washington State Toxic Algae website.