'Pretty unprecedented' algae bloom drifting down Ohio River with - WDRB 41 Louisville News

'Pretty unprecedented' algae bloom drifting down Ohio River with no end in sight

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For weeks now, rafts of algae have floated down the Ohio River. The “harmful algae blooms” have prompted four states, including Kentucky, to warn water skiers, boaters and others about coming into contact with river water.

The clusters of blue-green algae usually form on ponds and lakes, where hot and sunny summer weather and stagnant water aid their growth. Large rivers, such as the Ohio, typically move too fast and are muddy enough to keep the algae from proliferating.

In fact, the Kentucky Division of Water isn’t aware of any advisories issued for the river in the past, spokesman Lanny Brannock said Monday in an e-mail.

This year’s widespread occurrence of algae on the river is “pretty unprecedented,” said Greg Youngstrom, environmental specialist at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an eight-state agency that monitors the river's water quality.

Youngstrom said a bloom affected a roughly 30-mile stretch of the river near Cincinnati in 2008. Local officials advised people about coming into contact with river water for about 10 days, he said.

“At this point we’re beyond a month on this one,” Youngstrom said, noting that the first sighting of a bloom was August 19 near Wheeling, W.Va.

Wet weather that lasted late into summer, followed by a dry spell, have helped create the historic blooms on the river, officials say.

West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio officials issued public health advisories on Sept. 4. Kentucky broadened its warning last Friday to include all of the river from the West Virginia state line to the Cannelton Locks and Dam in Hancock County southwest of Louisville. Indiana also issued an advisory last Friday.

At issue is a type of blue-green algae that accumulates and produces toxins that are known to cause skin irritation, breathing difficulties and stomach problems. Public health officials advise people to avoid getting in the river and keep pets and livestock from wading into or drinking water with algae blooms.

The blooms form when the river and its tributaries are flooded with excess nutrients, such as agricultural fertilizer, eroded soil and discharges from wastewater treatments plants. They thrive on sunlight and a slow-moving flow – conditions that are present right now in the Ohio, Youngstrom said.

Cooler weather would help the algae dissipate, but “that won’t happen until probably November,” he said.

“When you see the weather map and the band of rain goes from Texas to Chicago and works its way across the Ohio Valley, that’s the sort of thing that we need,” he said. “It needs to flush the entire system out.”

After Kentucky issued its advisory last week, promoters of the Louisville 50 Canoe and Kayak Race on Oct. 3 suspended training on the river, said David Wicks, one of the event’s organizers.

Wicks said about 58 people from 13 states have signed up for the day’s races, which include a 50-mile paddle from Westport to West Point, Ky. He blames the algae bloom for a lower turnout than expected.

“We’re staying off the river until the situation gets better,” he said.

If the blooms persist, race officials may choose to route boats farther away from shore where the algae is thickest, he said.

Meanwhile, the Louisville Sports Commission and Ironman officials are monitoring river conditions for the Oct. 10 triathlon, said Karl F. Schmitt Jr., the sports commission’s president & CEO.

Ironman officials have not responded to a request for comment. But Schmitt said he’s not aware of a date by which the organization would make a decision about the swimming portion of the race.

“They’ve not given us any specific timelines,” he said.

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