Blue-green algae season boosts demand for accurate water testing

Toxin-causing cyanobacteria

3 March 2014

Private and public laboratories providing water testing services are urged to check they have the expertise to meet an increased demand for freshwater phytoplankton analysis during Queensland’s annual season for blue-green algae (BGA).

Cyanobacteria and alga scientist Lindsay Hunt, from Jarvis Hunt Consultancy, said the peak time for BGA blooms every year occurs between February and April.

“Phytoplankton analysis in the peak season requires short turnaround times, with clients expecting a high degree of competence and consistency.

“But a day or two to provide accurate data is a huge challenge, given that even an experienced algae counter will start to feel fatigued after six or seven hours per day, over several weeks, analysing water samples,” Ms Hunt explained.

Cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as BGAs, are a group of photosynthetic microorganisms that survive and flourish in all kinds of ecosystems. They are usually too small to be seen; but when they form large colonies (‘blooms’) the mass can take on a paint-like appearance on the water’s surface.

However, not all BGAs form scums, so it may not always be obvious.  This is why reliable, timely and accurate monitoring and toxin analysis is essential.

Ms Hunt said that distinguishing the many different species of phytoplankton in water requires expert training and knowledge, but not all water testing facilities are set up or have the skillset to provide accurate reports on levels of BGAs or the toxins they produce.

“One of the biggest issues for these laboratories is being prepared for the fluctuations in demand.

“Many service providers only have enough staff to cope with low to moderate demand, so during the peak season for BGAs the existing team can experience increased stress, injury and fatigue from the extra workload.

“There’s often a general lowering of the quality and reliability of the analysis, too,” Ms Hunt said.

Cross-training staff who are specialists in other types of microbial analysis to accurately identify the cyanobacteria causing the bloom is a practical solution.

“With properly trained staff, the additional 30 samples that might arrive each day for testing can be accommodated and you don’t have to outsource some of the work to other laboratories and risk inconsistent service quality.

“It’s also about recruiting the right staff and creating the right environment for them to work in so they can do their job properly,” Ms Hunt said.

Jarvis Hunt Consultancy has introduced new services to help laboratories ensure their in-house teams can provide reliable and timely data specifically about BGAs.

As well as intensive developmental training on site or online, Jarvis Hunt offers help with quality assurance, accreditation, legislative compliance, optimal set up and workflows, recruitment, and contract counting.

“We want to help laboratories know how to identify the actual phytoplankton that’s causing a client’s problem so the best mitigation and prevention strategy can be recommended. That’s really important for avoiding risks to human and animal health as well as the local environment.

Jarvis Hunt Consultancy was established in 2013 in response to the growing demand for reliable, specialist services in the quest for optimal water quality, ecological balance, and sustainable management systems.

About Jarvis Hunt Consultancy

Based in Ipswich, Queensland, Jarvis Hunt is the only consultancy in Australia offering a comprehensive package of in-house training plus specialist advice and contract-based technical services, including:

  • Micro-ecology consulting and analysis
  • Freshwater phytoplankton analysis, sampling, monitoring, training
  • Laboratory set-up, management practices and Quality Assurance
  • In-house contract counting
  • Routine microbiological analysis of water samples

Drawing on more than 15 years of experience as a practising phycologist and research manager, Jarvis Hunt’s principal scientist Lindsay Hunt is now sharing her expertise with a range of clients whose objectives are similar: understanding how micro-organisms affect water quality and finding solutions for water quality problems.

About Blue Green Algae (Cyanobacteria)

  • Blue-Green Algae (BGA) occur naturally in most marine and freshwater aquatic systems.
  • Cyanobacteria have been found in the planet’s oldest fossils and created the atmosphere that made all current life on earth possible.
  • When there is an imbalance of the levels of BGA in an ecosystem, some species can produce toxins that have serious health implications for humans, animals, birds and livestock.
  • A bloom is identified as a discernible increase in algal numbers causing changes to the water’s colour, taste, odour, turbidity, as well as impacting on the health of other aspects of the ecosystems, such as birds, fish, frogs, etc.
  • Cyanobacteria blooms can occur in any warm, still or slow-moving freshwater that contains nutrients such as fertiliser runoff or septic tank overflows, including rivers, streams, wetlands, natural and man-made lakes, dams, estuaries, inlets, bulk water reservoirs, irrigation channels, stormwater drains, sewers, and wastewater treatment plants.
  • BGA blooms usually flourish in the summer months when warmer temperatures, increased rainfall and incidence of flooding can change the levels of nutrients entering an ecosystem.
  • BGA blooms in cooler months are often caused by unusually high levels of nutrients flowing from floods and rainfall.
  • Signs of the environmental impact from BGA blooms include odour and taste changes, but the primary one is the discolouration of the water to verdant green and or vibrant blue, and a foam or scum-like layer on top of the water.
  • Dense blooms can block sunlight and consume all the oxygen in the water, killing off other plants and animals.
  • Toxins associated with cyanobacteria have been known to damage the nervous system and liver, upset the gastrointestinal system, and promote tumour growth.