Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2020OK032G

Harmful algal blooms and public safety: a monitoring and research program aimed at understanding cyanobacterial blooms and toxin production

Institute: Oklahoma
USGS Grant Number:
Year Established: 2020 Start Date: 2020-09-01 End Date: 2023-08-31
Total Federal Funds: $82,245 Total Non-Federal Funds: $83,052

Principal Investigators: K.D. Hambright

Abstract: Harmful algal blooms, particularly of toxigenic cyanobacteria (cyanoHABs), are a growing threat to human health and our nation’s countless inland water bodies, including over 30,000 reservoirs that serve primarily for domestic water supply and recreation. There is a critical need for a reliable, affordable, broadly adaptable system for detecting cyanoHABs and their toxins early in a bloom cycle to adequately protect the public from exposure to cyanobacterial toxins (cyanotoxins). Moreover, biological understanding of the factors underlying cyanoHAB outbreaks and cyanotoxin production represent major knowledge gaps, as well as obstacles to mitigation of cyanoHABs and public health protection. The many lakes and reservoirs of the South Central US provide drinking water, rich fisheries, abundant recreational activities, and a general, high-value aesthetic quality to the region. Many lakes, such as Texoma (TX-OK), Eufaula (OK), Thunderbird (OK), Marion (KS), and Possum Kingdom (TX) also serve as important tourism-based economic engines for local communities. Unfortunately, like many other regions of the country, cyanoHABs are frequent occurrences in the South Central US, and have been exacerbated by recent drought and heat conditions. In 2006, a pet died from cyanotoxin exposure in Lake Texoma; in 2012, two dogs died from cyanotoxin exposure in Lake Ellsworth, OK; and this past summer, 2019, at least two dogs died from cyanotoxin poisoning in Lady Bird Lake, TX. While no human deaths have been unequivocally attributed to cyanotoxins, it is possible that many humans have experienced sublethal adverse acute effects from cyanobacteria, particularly in recent years, but we have little understanding of the consequences of chronic exposures. Regional monitoring for cyanoHABs and cyanotoxins tends to be reactionary and sporadic, and therefore insufficient for protecting the health of humans and other animals. The country is in dire need of a solution for dealing with the threat of cyanoHABs – an alternate monitoring system that focuses on near-shore waters, is low in cost, and offers near real-time information, coupled with a basic research program aimed at understanding cyanoHABs and cyanotoxin production. One deficiency of standard monitoring programs is that neither pigments nor biomass are reliable predictors of cyanotoxins; the triggers for toxin production in cyanobacteria remain unclear. We propose to develop a two-pronged monitoring program for Oklahoma reservoirs cyanobacteria consisting of 1) the foundation for an early-warning detection program for cyanobacteria and their toxins and 2) characterization of the producers and environmental triggers that cause and exacerbate toxin production. Over the next three years, we will: 1) assist in water quality monitoring of a suite of reservoirs in Oklahoma, with emphasis on the near-shore areas frequented by recreators. We will monitor physical, chemical, and biological parameters relating to cyanoHABs; 2) adapt available and developing molecular genetic (qPCR) and analytical chemistry methods (LC-MS/MS) for routine monitoring and early-warning detection of cyanoHABs and their toxins; 3) investigate the role of natural lake bacteria (including cyanoHABs) in the production and release of toxins, and possible mitigation strategies for increasing the breakdown of these chemicals into the water. Our proposed monitoring and research will be an in-depth extension of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s routine monitoring across the state, together which will serve as a model system applicable to lakes and reservoirs throughout the South Central US.