Algae in the Highland Lakes
Freshwater algae and cyanobacteria
Freshwater algae play an important role in aquatic ecosystems. Most algae are harmless, but some species (notably cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae) can on occasion produce toxins that can be dangerous to animals and people. These events are known as harmful algal blooms, or HABs, when they occur suspended in the water column. When these events occur as algal mats, they are referred to as harmful algal proliferations, or HAPs.
Current harmful algae status in the Highland Lakes
LCRA regularly monitors water samples for cyanotoxins in lakes Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, Bastrop and Fayette. The testing has not detected cyanotoxins in the water at levels that would be harmful to humans or pets in 2022 or 2023.
In the summer of 2023, LCRA began testing algal material in Lake LBJ and Inks Lake as part of a joint study with the City of Austin. In August 2023, results from the July testing detected high concentrations of toxicity in algae tested from three sites on Lake LBJ and three sites on Inks Lake.
The City of Austin monitors for toxic algae in Lake Austin, Lady Bird Lake and Lake Walter E. Long. For more information on City of Austin cyanotoxin monitoring, visit austintexas.gov/page/algae.
LCRA strongly recommends avoiding all contact with algae and treating all algae as if it could be toxic, regardless of whether testing has detected any cyanotoxins in the area. Algae can begin producing toxins without warning or change in appearance.
It is impossible to tell whether blue-green algae are producing toxins by look, touch or smell, so scientific testing is required to determine if toxins are present. Though it is difficult to predict precisely when or if blue-green algae will produce toxins, toxin production in general is usually triggered when environmental conditions include excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus); warm water temperatures; calm, stagnant or low-flow conditions; and ample sunlight. Harmful algae may only last a few hours or can persist for several weeks depending on weather conditions and characteristics of the waterbody.
The name blue-green algae can be somewhat misleading in the identification of cyanobacteria. Blue-green algae are most commonly blue/green, dark green, brown and black. They can make water appear as swirls of green paint, green pea soup or floating mats of what may look like moss or scum. Blue-green algae can also be intermixed with other algae that do not produce toxins (i.e., green algae and diatoms).
Exposure to harmful algae
People and pets can be exposed to harmful algae toxins through direct skin contact from swimming and other recreational activities or ingesting water or food contaminated with harmful algae toxins.
Harmful algae toxins can cause skin and eye irritation or rashes. Severe reactions can occur when large amounts of water are ingested, and can range from diarrhea, cramps and vomiting to fainting, dizziness and numbness, or tingling in lips, fingers and toes. If you think you are experiencing symptoms related to exposure to harmful algae toxins, call your doctor or a poison control center immediately. For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention HAB-Associated Illness webpage.
Dogs are primarily at risk through ingestion. Dogs’ behaviors such as picking up items from a lake in their mouth or licking their fur after swimming through algae can put them at a high risk for exposure to harmful algae. The best way to protect you and your pets from toxins is to avoid all direct contact with algae.
Animals can experience symptoms within minutes of exposure to toxicity, including drooling, rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, difficulty breathing, loss of energy and appetite, stumbling and falling, foaming at the mouth, seizures, and even death.
Report a dog illness that may be related to toxic algae in the Highland Lakes to LCRA by emailing Contact LCRA. Include information about your dog (breed and size), when and where the dog may have been exposed, the dog’s symptoms and your contact information.
Drinking water supplies
Utility operators are responsible for testing and treatment to remove harmful algae toxins to meet federal regulatory guideline limits for public water supply uses.
Risk of exposure from swimming
Natural bodies of water are not chlorinated or disinfected, so there is always a risk of contact with bacteria or other toxins when swimming in the Highland Lakes. Water quality conditions can change frequently and can vary from one part of a lake to another.
Humans, pets and livestock that interact with harmful algae toxins either through physical contact or ingestion can become sick, or in extreme cases, become paralyzed or die. People who enter the water do so at their own risk.
To keep pets safe while swimming in the Highland Lakes:
- Avoid areas with algae or that are stagnant.
- Don’t let dogs consume lake water, algal material or other shoreline debris.
- Don’t let dogs lick their fur or paws after getting out of the water.
- Rinse your dog after contact with lake water.
- Provide clean, fresh water for drinking.
- If your dog becomes sick after swimming, take your dog to a veterinarian immediately.
Help minimize growth and spread of harmful algae
Once harmful algae appears, there are few options besides letting it run its natural course. Chemical treatment methods such as algaecides approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Department of Agriculture are not recommended during a bloom or proliferation and can contribute to a temporary reduction in water quality in the form of low dissolved oxygen levels and the release of algal toxins from dying algal cells.
Land use has a direct effect on water quality, and water quality is directly related to harmful algae growth and abundance. To help reduce man-made sources of nutrients:
- Pick up and properly dispose of pet waste.
- Reduce the use of fertilizer on lawns. Most established lawns do not need additional phosphorus to be healthy.
- Do not dump lawn clippings, leaves or other yard waste into storm drains, creek beds, lakes or other waterways.
- Have your septic system inspected and pumped at least every three to five years to help ensure it operates properly.
- Use silt fences, containment barriers and other best management practices at residential and commercial construction sites to prevent runoff of nutrient-laden sediment.
- Plant and maintain vegetative buffer strips along shorelines of lakes, ponds and streams. Native plants are much more effective at filtering runoff than the typical grass species found on residential lawns. See the Remarkable Riparian webpage for free digital lessons on riparian habitat function.
- Learn more about water quality issues and steps you can take to improve water quality in your watershed. See the Texas Watershed Steward website for information on upcoming workshops and online resources such as training videos and the curriculum handbook.