Cape Cod Times
By Doug Fraser
Posted Aug 12, 2019 at 9:29 PM
Updated Aug 13, 2019 at 7:44 AM
Researchers seek to head off blooming problem in Cape ponds
BREWSTER — Charles “Chuck” Madansky was busy setting up what appeared to be a plastic tote on top of a pole driven into the sandy bottom of a small cove on Cliff Pond.
“It’s a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption,” he acknowledged, referring to the late inventor famous for his chain-of-event sketches.
The inside of the tote was crammed with plastic tubing and filters, and a small pump hummed steadily. Madansky fitted what looked like four desk lamps onto the tote, the long articulated necks dipping nearly to the water, ending in lampshades fitted with mosquito-netting that nearly touched the pond surface.
The “contraption” was collecting gases coming off the water, generated through evaporation or wave action. The tubing and filters were a way to condense and store what is in those gases, particularly the microscopic cyanobacteria that produce toxins that can be harmful to wildlife, pets and humans.
“Cyanobacteria is one of the symptoms of how poorly we are treating the water and the earth,” said Madansky, a volunteer with the Brewster Ponds Coalition, which is monitoring several of the town’s ponds for the bacteria.
Although the state does not require testing for cyanobacteria, which will sometimes manifest as a green or blue-green scum on ponds, testing of nearly 30 Cape ponds is underway this summer by the health departments of several towns and water quality advocacy groups with help from the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, backed up by researchers at the University of New Hampshire Center for Freshwater Biology.
Cyanobacteria occur worldwide in calm, nutrient-rich waters, according to an advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency. There are nearly 6,300 species of cyanobacteria, and approximately 46 are toxic to humans. They must be tested for because they cannot be distinguished with the naked eye. Haney said the toxins may serve as a defense in microbial warfare; many are released when the cell is damaged or killed and in turn kill off zooplankton grazing on them. But research also has shown that they may help in gathering essential elements the cell uses.
Some species make cyanotoxins that are among the most powerful in nature, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In animals, a couple of tablespoons can cause death in as little as a half-hour to as long as a day and have killed creatures as large as cattle.
The Cape has had no reported human incidents, but animals have been affected, including two dogs that died and two others that were sickened in 1998 after eating some blue-green algae scum at Cliff Pond.
Association to Preserve Cape Cod data resulted in at least a half-dozen Cape ponds being closed to swimming this summer, and others are operating under advisories because of high cyanobacterial amounts that would not have been detected with state-mandated beach water quality testing. Such testing focuses on fecal coliform bacteria that indicate that viruses and other disease-causing organisms may be present due to human or animal waste.
“The existing system is utterly reactive. You have to notice visible scum on the pond,” association Executive Director Andrew Gottlieb said. Samples are then taken and sent to a state lab, and it can take days to get a result.
“There’s a built-in delay during which people and pets get exposed to potentially dangerous levels of toxins,” Gottlieb said. The association conferred with the EPA and UNH researchers. Using grant money, it stocked a lab with equipment, including a fluorometer that can estimate bloom density using pigments. It bought kits to do the sampling and hired summer interns. The association’s intent is to help towns and pond coalitions with lab work, equipment and, in some cases, by doing the sampling, Gottlieb said.
Samples are analyzed daily, put through the fluorometer, and identified as to the strain under a microscope to determine the progress of the bloom. Towns can then enact a closure ahead of time, Gottlieb said.
Madansky’s device, developed by UNH researchers, was for a different study that looks at long-term exposure to the smallest cyanobacteria cells that become airborne and can be inhaled. Studies have tentatively correlated clusters of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s cases to areas that have recurring cyanobacterial blooms.
The Brewster Pond Coalition paid for its own kits to do the sampling. Water samples are gathered using a plankton net tossed out into deeper water from shore and hauled in. Water and small animals and plant life floating in it are collected in the fine screen netting and transferred to a bottle for analysis.
UNH professor James Haney said researchers have been working on a way to use pigment of the samples to determine the potential level of toxicity, but Scott Gallager, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, believes he has already developed an instrument that can identify most of the species that produce toxins and will operate 24 hours a day sampling water without human intervention.
Through his company, Coastal Ocean Vision of North Falmouth, Gallager created an autonomously operating water sampling device that contains a microscope that can magnify and photograph cells and then ship the results to his laptop using cellphone technology. The device also uses a laser whose beam excites the carbon bonds in the bacteria. These bonds vibrate differently depending on the species, and the return signal is molecular fingerprint, Gallager said.
He hopes to deploy one of five autonomously operating labs in Santuit Pond in Mashpee by next week, and four other prototypes will be sent to other locations in the U.S. where cyanobacterial blooms occur.
Nationally, cyanobacteria is the focus of increasing federal effort and grant money after it was detected in 2014 in the Toledo, Ohio, public water system and resulted in a drinking water ban that caused some panic, water hoarding and even fights over bottled water, according to a Michigan Radio NPR story.
The worst blooms occur in agricultural states where crop fertilizer and farm animal waste washes into streams, rivers and lakes. The EPA is especially concerned about areas that get their drinking water from surface waters, such as Toledo, which draws from Lake Erie.
Researchers are concerned that the higher temperatures brought by climate change are more favorable to these bacteria.
“Cyanobacteria like it hot,” said Donald Anderson, the U.S. director for Harmful Algal Blooms and a senior scientist at WHOI. With more moisture in the air due to global warming, the Cape has been seeing more of its water delivered in torrential rainstorms. That causes more stormwater runoff and discharge into surface water bodies.
“When you talk about climate change, typically people say there will be more of these blooms in fresh water,” Anderson said. “That’s a problem that’s not going away, and it’s getting worse on the Cape and elsewhere.”
What doesn’t help is the Cape’s problem with nutrient loading of groundwater and surface water bodies by septic systems that handle wastewater treatment for more than 80 percent of the region’s homes and businesses. The region is spending billions of dollars to reduce the flow of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that promote explosive growth of algae in water.
“Reducing the footprint of humans is really important,” said Haney, who is worried that rising temperatures and a steady flow of nutrients could result in more ponds closed due to cyanobacterial blooms.
“You can’t change climate change, but you can have an effect on nutrients,” he said, noting that, even with hotter summers, it is still possible to constrain blooms by curtailing the flow of effluent into ponds.
“Give them both (heat and nutrients) and you’re in big trouble,” he said.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter: @dougfrasercct.