With the weather turning from warm to hot in the Columbia Basin, the people of Tri-Cities will be heading outdoors. It's time to soak up the sun, stretch the legs, and make the most of the season. For many of us, that means it's time to park along the Columbia River and take a long walk along the great trails and walkways that put us within arm's reach of nature. Others will be boating, fishing, swimming, or letting their dogs off-leash to splash into the river.

The Columbia River may not be safe for recreation this year

If you're new to the area, you may not realize that the Columbia River, particularly around the Tri-Cities, faces a serious problem: toxic algae bloom. The problem, however, is new to long-term residents of the area, too. It wasn't until 2021 that this algae bloom was found in the Columbia River. Many dogs died that year as innocent pet owners let their pooches play in the river, not knowing the danger the dogs were in.

What is toxic algae bloom?

Also called algal blooms, these waves of murk in the water are cyanobacteria - a bacterial organism that behaves similarly to plants. These bacteria can develop in certain conditions into a "bloom," a large, visible mass, which may either float along the surface of the water (planktonic), or cling to the structures at the bottom of the water (benthic). The image below shows an example of both, although they can be different in appearance and color. Most blooms found in the Columbia River are benthic.

Two examples of toxic algal blooms
Benton-Franklin Health District

The bloom is dangerous because the bacteria in it produce "toxins that affect water quality, ecosystem stability, surface drinking water supplies and public health," per Benton-Franklin Health District. Contact with the algae can lead to sickness that may be mild to life-threatening, depending on the type of algae, the type of exposure, and the length of exposure.

What types of things can expose me to the bacteria?

Per the CDC, exposure can occur through drinking water, inhaling water droplets, or ingesting contaminated food.

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That means that if the Columbia River looks murky, you should leave. Swimming, drinking, boating, and fishing will all put you at risk. Just being close to the water might lead to an accidental inhalation of a water droplet from river spray. The same goes for pets and livestock.

Note: it is not yet clear whether eating freshwater fish caught in a bloom can be harmful; however it is officially discouraged. The Oregon Health Authority offers advice to fishermen who decide to eat the fish against this precaution.

Guide to protecting animals from toxic algae bloom
Centers for Disease Control

What are the symptoms of illness caused by toxic algae bloom?

The Centers for Disease Control lists these common symptoms for humans affected by the bacteria:

  • Stomach pain
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • Coughing
  • Watery eyes
  • Nose irritation
  • Sore throat

More severe symptoms include:

  • Liver damage
  • Seizure
  • Irregular heartbeat

Symptoms in pets and animals can include vomiting, loss of energy, stumbling or falling, and seizures.

If these symptoms are present, a doctor or veterinarian should be seen immediately.

Benton-Franklin Health District began its annual monitoring of the river systems this year on May 20, and will update the public as data becomes available. Warning signs will be posted where algal blooms are found.

Stay safe this summer, and remember the easy saying:

If in doubt, stay out!

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