Stay out of those Harmful Algal Blooms this Summer

Cyanobacteria magnified several hundred times normal size. These ancient, aquatic organisms can be toxic to people, pets and wildlife.

Oregon Public Health officials are urging awareness about algae bloom season and suggest that Memorial Day weekend may bring more people in contact with harmful blooms.

“As folks head out for the holiday weekend and throughout the summer, we want people who use Oregon’s lakes, reservoirs and other fresh waters for recreation to enjoy these areas, but to take precautions if they see an algae bloom,” said Jennifer Ketterman, coordinator of the Oregon Public Health Harmful Algae Bloom Surveillance (HABS) program. “We advise people to avoid swallowing or inhaling water droplets from algae-affected water and to avoid skin contact.”

Last year Oregon Public Health issued 21 health advisories due to cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, because of the potential for exposure to toxins. This was an increase over 2008, when 14 health advisories for harmful algae blooms were issued. Also, in 2009 Oregon recorded its first confirmed dog death due to algae toxin in water near the confluence of Elk Creek and the Umpqua River in Douglas County. Continue reading

Weighing Costs and Risk of Quagga and Zebra Mussels in the Columbia

Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant College Program.

Zebra and Quagga Mussels will cost PNW energy ratepayers a lot of money concludes a draft study by Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Economic Advisory Board. It will also cost other users of the river and its tributaries including agricultural irrigators, municipal water suppliers, marina owners, and fish hatcheries.  Though the study isn’t due out until June, this is a big step towards quantifying the threat of aquatic invasive organisms like Quagga and Zebra (Dreissenid) mussels, so reports the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Bulletin.

“During its January meeting the Nation Power and Conservation Council [NPCC] tasked the IEAB with analyzing potential economic effects of a quagga or zebra mussel infestation of the Columbia River basin with a focus on the Federal Columbia River Power System and the NPCC’s fish and wildlife program.

The IEAB’s final report, which is due in June, should help the Council and other policy makers in the region better understand the potential damage and related costs of a mussel infestation as compared to the potential cost of preventative actions. Mann was in Boise to give the Council a progress report on the project.”

The Bulletin goes on to list some of the areas that could be impacted by a mussel infestation:

“The IEAB is gathering information on possible impacts to infrastructure within the Council’s sphere of influence, including any submerged components and conduits of the FCRPS, including juvenile and adult fish passage and monitoring facilities, navigation locks, hydropower facilities, raw water distribution systems for hatcheries, turbine cooling, and water supply; trash racks, diffuser gratings, and drains.

Non-FCRPS [Federal Columbia River Power System] irrigation, municipal water supply and other infrastructure could also be affected, and a mussel invasion also has the potential to collapse the existing food chain.

There are no known zebra or quagga infestations in the Pacific Northwest but they seem to be moving closer and closer. The invasive mussels were found in January 2007 in Lake Mead in the Southwest and since then quagga or zebra mussels have been found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah.”

In the Columbia system, however, there are still plenty of questions about whether the organisms can survive in our low calcium waters or under different types of stream conditions.  The results of a study in the Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment published on-line in by OSU’s Thom Whittier and others shows that these European mussels don’t thrive unless waters are still and calcium levels are high.  Many of the streams and lakes of Western Oregon and Washington are therefore, probably low risk in terms of infestation. But uncertainties remain, as they did in the Colorado River system before the mussels arrived there and proliferated, despite some of the indications otherwise.

Image courtesy of Thom Whittier, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

What have these organisms cost other, comparable areas?  In the Great Lakes area–the location with the longest history of infestation, mussels have cost the power industry about $3.1 billion between 1993 and 1999 according to Congressional researchers. Overall community impacts totaled at least $5 billion according to the Quagga-Zebra Mussel Action Plan for Western U.S. Waters.

The point of this is that for quagga and zebra mussels, as well any other aquatic invader, risk–biological, physical and economic–needs to be determined to better prepare for invasions.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. — Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Beware the Yellow Flag!

There’s a gorgeous, large yellow iris called “yellow flag” or “yellow water iris” (Iris pseudacorus) found in wetlands, along riverbanks and near ponds in Oregon. It is sold in local nurseries and garden stores as well.

Image courtesy of Oregon State University Extension ServiceBut there’s a big problem with this lovely perennial iris. It is invasive and out-competes native riparian vegetation, including cattails, sedges and rushes, and it degrades native fish habitat, as well as bird nesting and rearing sites. Native to Europe, Great Britain, North Africa and the Mediterranean region, yellow flag iris has been introduced in temperate areas nearly worldwide and occurs throughout the United States except in the Rocky Mountains. It appears to be most common near developed areas.

You wouldn’t expect widely available, familiar plants like yellow flag iris to be out-of-control noxious weeds. But yellow flag iris, native to Europe, has escaped cultivation and moved into rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

With large showy yellow blossoms, yellow flag, also known as water flag, can grow in large clumps and has been know to reduce the carrying capacity of wetlands for water storage, and block irrigation canal flow and flood control ditches. Difficult to eradicate, it is common in mid-Willamette Valley riparian areas and has been found along rivers in central Oregon.

“If you see a yellow-flowered iris growing directly in water in Oregon, it is most likely yellow flag,” said Andy Hulting, a weed specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

In Oregon, yellow flag blooms in late spring or early summer. Several flowers can occur on each stem, along with one or two leafy bracts. Each flower resembles a common garden iris with three large (1.5- to 3-inch) downward facing yellow sepals and three smaller upward pointing petals. The yellow sepals are often streaked with brown to purple lines. Flower color ranges from cream to bright yellow. Some horticultural varieties have been developed with variegated leaf color. The plants may grow to almost five feet in height. The leaves are mostly basal and are folded and clasp the stem at the base in a fan-like fashion.

A perennial, yellow flag iris will remain green during the winter where the weather is mild, but leaves will die back during periods of prolonged drought or below-freezing temperatures. It spreads both by seed and by stout underground stems called rhizomes from which its roots can grow to a foot in length.

After flowering, the large seed capsules of yellow iris are up to 2.5 inches long and contain many dark to reddish-brown seeds. When not flowering, yellow flag iris may be confused with cattail (Typha latifolia) or broad-fruited bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum). Look for the fruits in the summer, or the fan-shaped plant-base at other times of year.

Up to several hundred flowering plants may be connected by rhizomes. Fragments of rhizome can form new plants if they break off and drift to suitable habitat. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and long-tongued flies. Seeds germinate and grow well after being burned in late summer. Yellow flag readily resprouts from rhizomes after burning.

As a popular ornamental plant for wet areas or well-mulched soil, yellow flag is widely sold in nurseries and on the Web. It has often been planted in wastewater or storm water treatment ponds, been used to control erosion and is known to take up metals and nutrients in wastewater treatment facilities. It is a popular garden plant for wet or well-mulched soil, and has been introduced as an ornamental throughout the world.

“Yellow flag is being widely distributed by water garden enthusiasts,” said Hulting. “This likely leads to unintentional releases in urban and suburban wetlands and eventually wetlands across the landscape, spread by seed and rhizome fragments during high water events. We’d like to help gardeners become more aware of the ecological effects invasive plants like yellow iris might have on the environment.”

The best control is prevention, said Hulting. “Learn to identify it and don’t plant it. Encourage other gardeners not to plant it.”

Yellow flag is listed on the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Noxious B list, meaning it is locally invasive and not yet widespread. The Pacific Northwest Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as ‘A-2 Most Invasive-Regional’ (highly to moderately invasive but still with a potential to spread).

The OSU Extension Service recommends the following wetland native plants as being more ecologically appropriate alternatives to yellow flag: monkey flower, Rocky Mountain iris, Douglas iris and skunk cabbage. Also, these non-native ornamentals are less invasive: Japanese iris, Siberian iris and blue flag.

To help home gardeners and landscape designers make sound ecological choices about what to plant in their gardens, the Oregon State University Extension Service has published a 52-page booklet called GardenSmart Oregon (EC 1620), in cooperation with City of Portland, The Nature Conservancy, Oregon Association of Nurseries, Clackamas Community College, Oregon Public Broadcasting, OSU Extension Service and OSU Sea Grant. GardenSmart Oregon is available online at:

Or, call 1-800-561-6719 to request a printed copy of GardenSmart Oregon ($3 per copy shipping and handling fee). Local county offices of the OSU Extension Service have copies available for no charge.

Pulling can control isolated plants of yellow flag iris or digging, but use care and protect your skin as resins in the leaves and rhizomes can cause irritation. Because rhizome fragments can grow to form new plants, be sure to clean up all fragments. Large-scale tillage to control yellow flag should be avoided because of the likelihood of spreading rhizome fragments, warned Hulting.

“Limiting soil disturbance can help native plants survive and make the site more resilient to reinvasion by yellow flag,” he said.

If you can do nothing else, remove and destroy the seed heads and flowers of yellow flag, he advised.

Large-scale infestations of yellow flag most likely need to be managed by chemical means to achieve complete control and limit the spread. Formulations of glyphosate labeled for aquatic uses (examples: Rodeo or Aquamaster) have been effective on yellow flag iris when applied as a spot treatment. Take care to not overspray onto desirable plants when making glyphosate applications. Follow the mixing directions and application instructions on each label.

“Cut stump” treatments, or cutting or mowing foliage and applying glyphosate directly to the cut surface of individual plants have also been effective for managing smaller infestations of yellow flag iris and can negate herbicide injury to non-target plants. Because this plant is a rhizomatous perennial multiple applications over multiple years will likely be needed for complete control, said Hulting.

No biological control organisms have been approved for yellow flag iris.

Hope for Controlling Zebra Mussels

European imports, Zebra mussels have become a huge invasive species problem throughout the Great Lakes region where they proliferate in freshwater lakes, forming monocultures of the critters on beaches, boats, docs, power plant intakes, and other natural or human-made surfaces. Right now, all eyes in the West are on the zebra’s close cousin, the quagga mussel which has made inroads into the Colorado River–and therefore could be on Oregon’s doorstep soon as a hitchhiker on a recreational boat. So it is good news to know that researchers in New York have come upon a new tool–a bacterial toxin–for controlling the zebra mussel. We can only hope the same types of tools are applicable to the quagga. Read more on the topic at Albany’s Times Union by clicking here. The article is exerpted below:

mussel-message.jpgCAMBRIDGE — A small laboratory in the rolling farmland of northern Washington County may have dealt a real setback to the zebra mussel, a tiny striped mollusk that infests waters of New York and about two dozen other states.

Years of research at the former state fish hatchery have found an environmentally safe way to slow the invader from southern Russia. Hundreds of millions have spread to lakes, rivers and the plumbing of power plants two decades after showing up in the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean-going freighters.

Daniel Molloy, director of the State Museum’s Field Research Laboratory, expects mass production of a natural toxin he discovered for zebra mussels to begin in 2010.

A half-million-dollar, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support work by California-based Marrone Organic Innovations, which has a state contract to sell the toxin.

It could mean power plants and other places that need to control mussels can stop using chlorine, a powerful chemical that also kills fish and other aquatic life, and leaves cancer-causing compounds in the water.

“This is very exciting,” said Molloy. “We started looking at this in 1991, and now are moving toward commercialization.” In 2001, Molloy found his natural assassin — a simple freshwater bacterium called pseudomonas fluorescens strain CLO145.

The bacteria, which was patented by the state, contains a toxin that destroys the mussel’s digestive system by giving it something akin to a fatal bleeding ulcer. It does not harm other aquatic life.

Still, Molloy warned the toxin is not a “silver bullet” to eradicate zebra mussels from every body of water. “Look at it more in terms of control,” he said.

Large lakes would require too much of the toxin to economically treat them completely, he said, although treatment could be effective in smaller areas, like swimming beaches.

Locally, infested lakes include Ballston and Saratoga lakes in Saratoga County; Lake George and Glen Lake, Warren County; and Hedges Lakes, Washington County. Lake Champlain, as well as Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, also are infested.

Molloy said the state will get part of any profits from the sale of the toxin. “I won’t get a nickel from this. I am a civil servant. Maybe I can get an extra vacation day,” Molloy said with a laugh.

Thanks to Joan Cabreza, Wetland Scientist & Regional Invasive Species Coordinator, US Environmental Protection Agency for this and other contributions to H2ONC. Happy retirement Joan–you will be missed!

Aquatic Invasive Species and the Law of Unforseen Consequences: Cautionary Tale from the Great Lakes Takes a New Twist

For those of us concerned with invasive species in the PNW, examples of impacts, management and prevention abound. The following story is a striking example of why invasive species are such an urgent issue locally and globally: they very often generate serious but completely unforeseen consequences for the ecosystems in which they become established. Note here that one of the organisms mentioned, the quagga mussel, has become established in reservoirs on the Colorado River in the Southwest and is expected by some to appear in the Northwest at some point as boaters inadvertently transport them into either the Snake or Columbia systems. Thanks to Joan Cabreza of the EPA Region 10 for passing this on to H2ONC.

Botulism takes fatal toll on thousands of Great Lakes birds Botulism and the infamous zebra mussel are blamed for killing birds – from gulls to loons – by the thousands.

By James Janega | Chicago Tribune reporter January 15, 2008 (corrected January 16, 2008)

Common LoonThe bird die-off was obvious as soon as Gary Rentrop and his English setter turned onto the Lake Michigan shore. The sugar-white sand, long buried in the crushed gray shells of invasive mussels and mats of rotting algae was now, suddenly, littered with dead birds.

“It was almost like a war zone of birds,” said Rentrop, a Michigan lawyer who recalled his November stroll along a Michigan beach. Rentrop counted 80 carcasses on a remote mile of beach near Cross Village, just a fraction of the estimated thousands of dead mergansers, gulls, loons and other birds whose migration last autumn ended in deadly poisoning from Type E botulism on Lake Michigan.

The mounting toll on migrating birds has stoked fears among researchers and ecologists that blame for the deaths lies with invasive populations of zebra mussels and round gobies — which arrived in ballast tanks in the 1980s and 1990s — spreading over the Great Lakes and effectively creating a new food chain.

Zebra mussels and their deep-water kin, quagga mussels, filter naturally occurring botulism and other toxins from the water. Gobies eat the mussels, and birds, in turn, eat the gobies.

Scientists theorize this new food chain is concentrating botulism and other toxins and passing them up to predators. The theory is the subject of a handful of scientific papers and upcoming research proposals.

Whatever the mechanism of transmitting the botulism, scientists in 1999 counted 311 birds in Lake Erie that appeared to die of it. The next year they counted 8,000, and the toll has remained in the thousands in the Great Lakes every year since. And instead of fading quickly as outbreaks did in decades past, the toxin has spread — first through Lakes Erie and Ontario, then Huron. In 2006, Lake Michigan was the most recent lake to be affected and by last autumn was one of the hardest hit.

In spreadsheets, scientists have noted the fatal effects of the annual outbreaks on more than 50 species of birds throughout the Great Lakes, from bald eagles to lowly pigeons. The list names 16 species of ducks, four types of grebes and six types of gulls. It includes double-crested cormorant and four of Lake Michigan’s tiny piping plovers, a bird so threatened its nests get protection from police tape and fences at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The deaths of many hundreds of loons have focused new urgency on the now-annual die-offs that occur from summer to fall. Loons live in small numbers, are slow to reproduce and are a symbol of northern wilderness.

The die-off that ended in November claimed an estimated 3,500 to 8,500 birds — including the loons and plovers — over hundreds of miles of beach in seven northern Michigan counties. It spread from an estimated 2,900 birds in 2006 along just 14 miles of shoreline at Sleeping Bear Dunes, said dunes biologist Ken Hyde.

The die-off also sparked preparations for a sprawling and macabre bird count in 2008 that will involve scores of volunteers combing hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan beaches over the summer and fall — to add up, bury and haul off what are expected to be thousands more poisoned birds and fish.

“We wish we weren’t dealing with this,” said Mark Breederland, who as extension educator for the Michigan Sea Grant research program is organizing the upcoming response. “We’ve got enough challenges on Lake Michigan, but it’s here. It’s upon us.”

The heightened threat to Lake Michigan became clear over the summer, when shore birds began dying, possibly of picking maggots off infected fish carcasses that washed ashore.

Then came autumn.

“We were getting so many loons,” said Thomas Cooley, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologist who performed necropsies on the birds. It takes 10 or 12 of the big birds to cover a laboratory table, he explained. “When you have two or three tables covered with those, it’s pretty sobering to look at that.”

Among the birds found dead was one of the most-studied loons in Michigan, a venerable male with four boldly colored tags on his legs and a name: C-3.

Each year since 1993, he had been observed at an Upper Peninsula pond in the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, said Damon McCormick, a biologist at Common Coast Research and Conservation who studied the bird.

Researchers knew C-3 had spent much of his life with the same female loon on a secluded pond in a corner of the refuge and that for unexplained reasons, he had recently left her for another loon on a neighboring pond in the refuge.

They knew that he stayed behind at the new pond a few weeks this year to supervise one late blooming chick as other loons began their fall migration, which may have timed his migration perfectly to a botulism plume and indirectly spelled his doom. To their knowledge, C-3 had raised more than 15 chicks over the years, and only once let a chick drown — when its leg got caught on a submerged log. For a loon, made him a good father, researchers said.

The loon’s body was found Nov. 1 by an old friend, of sorts, on a deserted, sandy crescent of Lake Michigan’s north shore.

Biologist and Common Coast co-director Joe Kaplan had handled C-3 “four or five” times in 14 years, most recently in 2006. Kaplan was on his last day of surveying bird carnage along the shore when he discovered the body.

“I remember specifically walking up to this bird,” Kaplan said. “There are thousands of thousands of birds that died on that lake, and here’s a bird that had a known history. I had a relationship with this bird. It’s an element of familiarity that you didn’t want to find.”

Adult loons return to their northern nesting grounds by early spring about 93 percent of the time, McCormick said. This year, researchers will be watching for them anxiously. A decline in adult population would almost certainly spell a decline among loons.

“We expect to see all our birds,” McCormick said. “But based on finding the C-3 male, there’s a lot more trepidation of what we’ll find this spring.”