Algae Blooms on Fernan Lake Puzzle Health Authorities

By Tom Bacon

Health authorities in northern Idaho are puzzled by a new, late-in-the-year outbreak of possibly toxic algae in Fernan Lake near Coeur d' Alene. The Panhandle Health District and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued a warning late last week for a newly formed mat of blue-green algae in Fernan Lake water.

A specialist in the Department of Environmental Quality said she hasn't seen an algae bloom in the fall since she was first stationed here in 2008. A toxin associated with the algae can cause rapid progression of neurological symptoms in animals - muscle spasms, labored breathing, convulsions and even death.

An Oregon State University researcher, Tim Otten, said an ancient cyanobacterium is probably to blame, and he's found that the strain has adapted over billions of years to crowd out non-toxic algae. He called cyanobacteria  "basically the cockroaches of the aquatic world - the uninvited guest that just won't leave."

The new autumn blue-green algae growth in Fernan and other northwest lakes is probably caused by human activities - overuse of fertilizer and septic tank seepage - and compounded by a warming climate. Otten said the bacteria are some of the oldest micro-organisms on earth, dating back perhaps 3.5 billion years when the planet was devoid of oxygen and barren of most life.

For the most part, he said, the best we can do is try to minimize the conditions that favor their proliferation.
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