Long and feathery, the sample of blue-green algae called Lyngbya was stuffed into the test tube, more plant than water sample.
The tube had arrived at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources to be tested for toxins that may be present in the algae, and its wisps of green were useful for Wesley Gerrin, a research professional and master’s student who conducts algae tests submitted to the UGA Soil, Plant and Water Lab.
The lab provides services such as soil and water analysis and testing for animal or hazardous waste. When someone has a question about algae growing in a pond or lake, their samples first come to the lab, which then relies on Warnell for the testing and analysis.
The issue of testing for toxins in blue-green algae rose to the surface recently after the death of several dogs who drank algae-tainted water. But not all algal blooms are toxic, said Gerrin, and it takes certain conditions to foster the production of certain toxins.
For example, agriculture and development affect runoff into ponds and lakes, which affects water quality. But the density of these land uses can have a large—or very small—effect.
In general, said Gerrin, there are several conditions that can lead to blooms:
- Excess nutrients
- Warm water temperatures
- Still or stagnant water
- Exposure to sunlight
Most of the samples Gerrin gets are not toxic algae, he said. Although he knew the tube of Lyngbya was unlike typical samples.
“Blue-green algae are capable of producing toxins in certain environmental conditions, but there’s not really a way of knowing when that happens,” said Gerrin. “In general, when you see filamentous mats, scum on the surface of the water, or drastic changes in the color of the water, you should have your water tested.”
If a landowner or resident is concerned about the water quality of a body of water, Gerrin said, the first step is to contact their county Extension agent.
“If they call their agent, they will send them a kit to collect the water,” Gerrin said. “Then, they ship it to the Soil, Plant and Water Lab, and then it comes to us.”
The test for a pond’s water quality and algae is $110. For details, visit aesl.ces.uga.edu.