The green algae bloom found in Santuit Pond the last three years is not just a Mashpee problem, but an increasing one across the country, and even the world, as communities that use fresh ponds and lakes for drinking water and recreation have had to shut down public water supplies because of potential toxins from similar blooms.
In Toledo, Ohio, for example, the water supply to some 400,000 people was shut down in 2014 because a toxin within the bloom, cyanobacteria, was discovered in parts of Lake Erie. The lake has had increasing problems with the algae since the late 1990s, reported the National Academy of Sciences.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that seeks to function as a national environmental watchdog, issued a report yesterday, Thursday, August 8, that stated that federal and state tests have found outbreaks of the blooms in hundreds of lakes, rivers and other bodies of water nationwide, “yet authorities are doing little to notify and protect Americans.”
“The bottom line is, if you test for microcystins, you’ll probably find them,” said Soren Rundquist, the group’s director of spatial analysis.
Exposure to cyanotoxins can cause serious health problems—from skin rashes to death—for people and animals who drink or come into contact with the water. Recent studies have also shown that the toxins can become airborne, drifting at least a mile away from the site of a toxic algae outbreak, the working group release stated.
Yet despite what the group cites as a serious problem, monitoring and warnings have been lacking.
On Cape Cod, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, a local environmental watchdog group, recently launched a project to monitor freshwater ponds and has already found the bacteria in most areas they have tested.
In Mashpee, Santuit Pond had levels of cyanobacteria exceeding a state advisory level earlier this summer, prompting the health department to close the area to recreation. The department has since reopened the pond as levels have returned to those below the advisory.
But Mashpee and Santuit Pond have become ground zero for a potential tool in combating the problem.
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researcher Scott Gallagher, working with the Mashpee Department of Natural Resources, has deployed one of a handful of his prototypes of what he is calling HABStats in the Mashpee pond.
The small, underwater monitoring device is characterized by its speed and efficiency.
The device, Dr. Gallagher said, takes eight samples of water every second, which are then uploaded to a computer for easier monitoring.
Over a period of five to 10 minutes, the sensor samples will provide a solid look at the makeup of a water body.
The approximately 18-inch long and 6-inch diameter tool rests underwater. The HABStats work by matching cells in the sample to cells already collected. Dr. Gallagher said that the sensor has a library of toxins logged. When a cell is matched to a cell in the library, the results are relayed to a computer in real time.
The sensor also gives an image of the cell, measures it, and tells if it is toxic and what type of toxin it is.
Because the sensor uploads data in real time, in a world where toxins like cyanobacteria have become more and more frequent, the HABStats could be a handy tool.
Current practice without the tool for Mashpee, and other cities and towns, requires much more time to receive results. Agencies likely take a sample and then send it to a lab for testing. In Mashpee, that can mean shipping samples to Maine. Getting back results can take upward of two days. When dealing with potential toxins like cyanobacteria, two days can be too long.
The sensor, said Richard H. York Jr., Mashpee’s director of natural resources, is cutting-edge technology that has really never been used before. But Mr. York said that the device has big potential.
More than two-thirds of Americans get their drinking water from systems that rely at least in part on lakes, rivers or other surface water, according to the Environmental Working Group’s data.
The group found that only 20 states test regularly for microcystins and make the data public. Even when they do, the group found, it is often after a significant delay. The remaining states provide little or no information about cyanotoxins produced by algae outbreaks.
“All states should regularly test for microcystins and other cyanotoxins and warn the public about the dangers,” Mr. Rundquist said.
Mr. York said Mashpee’s department is a rarity in that it conducts regular sampling of Santuit water. Even with monitoring provided by the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, for example, some Cape towns do not know how to react when cyanobacteria is found.
Dr. Gallagher has used a similar device in salt water to help monitor for red tide and other potential toxic algae blooms, but Santuit is the first freshwater pond with the device. Dr. Gallagher said he is sending his prototype to about 10 other agencies across the country for testing.
Funding for the device was provided through the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research Program, which aims to incentivize small, marine businesses.
Through the grant, HABStats will eventually develop the prototype into full manufacturing mode. For now, Dr. Gallagher is focused on getting the sensor into the hands of agencies like the Mashpee Natural Resources Department for testing.
Given rising temperatures, Dr. Gallagher said, the cyanotoxins have become more and more frequent across the world and even on the Cape. The intensity of the blooms have gotten worse as well.
He said that he is hoping to get the device across the country and world to help cities and towns better monitor their water.
Dr. Gallagher started researching cyanobacteria after a number of dogs died from drinking water out of a pond at Nickerson State Park in Brewster. That eventually led the WHOI researcher to Mashpee and to Santuit Pond.
“This is just one pond on Cape Cod,” Dr. Gallagher said. “If we can solve this in Santuit, we can take a huge step forward in what is a menace to the whole world.”