EDENTON — Scientists believe nutrients entering area waterways are making an area already prone for algal blooms worse, but where the nutrients are coming from and why they’re driving bloom production now remain unanswered questions.
Scientists and community leaders gathered in Edenton on Saturday to discuss the harmful algal blooms that have shown up in area waterways this summer. Held at College of The Albemarle’s Edenton campus, the event featured presentations by scientists, state and local agencies, and community groups concerned about the ongoing algae problem.
Presenters during the “Harmful Algal Blooms in the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound” forum pointed out that algal blooms in area waterways isn’t a new problem. They also said solutions to the problem won’t come quickly, as more resources are needed to gather data on the blooms’ causes.
The state of North Carolina has issued warnings that people and animals should avoid contact with bluegreen water — the result of what are known as cyanobacteria blooms — in the Chowan River every summer since 2015. While there have been no confirmed cases in North Carolina of anyone getting sick from contact with bluegreen water, some species of cyanobacteria can produce toxins that may cause illness in people and pets, according to the N.C. Division of Public Health’s website.
This summer, state officials have issued multiple warnings for residents and visitors to avoid contact with bluegreen algae in the region’s waterways. Recently, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a warning for the Chowan River near Indian Creek. It said test results showed an algal bloom there was producing microcystin at levels greater than 620 micrograms per liter— the highest levels for the toxin recorded this year. At that level, anyone coming in contact with the toxin is at extremely high risk for acute health effects, officials with the Division of Public Health said.
Kennedy Holt, a chemical risk assessor for HHS, noted that, while state officials can monitor bloom activity, there’s no way for them to “know what is exactly happening every single day at every single point” where the blooms show up.
“That’s why we can’t say anything more definitive,” he said. “So what I would say is that if you haven’t heard anything different or a follow-up ... then follow whatever guidelines have been put out to that point for that water body. That’s the best we can say without misrepresenting what the data is actually telling us.”
State environmental officials are monitoring numerous blooms in the Chowan River and across North Carolina, as reflected in an interactive map on the Division of Water Resources website. According to the map, 10 of the 19 blooms being monitored statewide currently are in the Albemarle area. All 10 are cyanobacteria blooms because cyanobacteria, or bluegreen algae, is the dominant algae group in the bloom.
Nathan Hall, an ecologist and biogeochemist with the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, pointed out the Chowan River isn’t the only area waterway plagued by the algal bloom problem.
“I think we know this because we see blooms pop up in the Perquimans, Pasquotank rivers — this is a regional problem of increasing biomass. And these blooms are kind of a symptom of this overall trend of higher algal production in the water,” he said.
The question everyone keeps asking, of course, is where the blooms are coming from and what’s causing them.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Hall said. “What’s driving these changes?”
Because of a variety of natural and manmade factors, Hall said algae tends to accumulate in waterways. He also said that adding nutrients to “bloom-prone” waterways makes the problem even worse.
“Blooms have gotten worse in the last three to four years,” he said. “What we’re working on now is how to figure the exact question: where are these nutrients coming from?”
Hall said scientists “have ideas” about where the nutrients are coming from.
“What we’re not 100 percent clear on is what is changing,” he said. “Where are those changes in nutrients coming from that are driving these blooms?”
Hall said because it is hard to measure the many tributaries connected to the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound, no one is quite certain where the blooms originate or what causes them.
“We really don’t know,” he said. “And without knowing the amount of water that is coming in from those smaller tributaries, there’s no way of knowing how many nutrients are coming in.
“We can measure the nutrients in the waters of those creeks — a lot of times they are pretty high — but we don’t know if (they’re coming) out of those ditches, out of those canals, out of those smaller creeks into the river.”
One of the communities along the Chowan River that’s seen its share of algal blooms is Arrowhead Beach.
“We are on board with anything that you need in terms of the volunteers,” Colleen Nicholas, president of the Arrowhead Beach Property Owners Association, told the scientists and agency officials. “We’ll find you volunteers around Arrowhead Beach because this is such an important issue for all of our members and visitors. We have a wonderful community and we want to make sure that its safe and that people can enjoy it and have the recreation that they expect.”
Nita Criner, who has lived along the banks of the Chowan River for decades, said she wants to ensure officials pursue policies that lead to a solution to the algal blooms. She recalled how back in the early 1980s, the Chowan River had a bad algae problem, so steps were taken to clean up the river.
“This is a worldwide issue,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that we don’t want to fear-monger in this area, but I also do not want to go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s when this river was pronounced dead.”
A recent report about three dogs exposed to algae dying near Wilmington had Criner worried about the possibility of something similar happening where she lives.
“I don’t want Edenton, North Carolina to be the next story (because) some dog died,” she said. “... I don’t want to wake up 10 years from now and we be a story because we didn’t want to shed light on everything. I want to address it now like we did in the ‘80s so we don’t repeat what history showed up.”