While results pending for toxic spread in Virgin River, official says drinking water ‘completely safe’

ST. GEORGE — As water officials test spots along the Virgin River to see how far a toxic algal bloom found in Zion National Park may have spread, the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s general manager says the county’s drinking water will remain safe despite the bloom.

Stock image | Photo by mheim3011/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“The water that we’re drinking right now that comes from the Water Conservancy District is coming from the Sand Hollow Reservoir and Quail Creek Reservoir, and that water hasn’t been affected at all,” Zachary Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told St. George News over a Zoom call.

On July 10, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality reported that toxins originating from an algal bloom in the North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion National Park had been detected. A Husky puppy had apparently ingested some of the algal toxins while playing in the river on July 4 and was dead an hour later. This led to the eventual discovery and confirmation of cyanobacteria toxins in the river.

Exposure to the toxin can cause seizures, tingling, numbness and other neurological symptoms, according to the Utah DEQ.

The algae that creates the toxin is naturally occurring in most water bodies and produces low levels of cyanobacteria. However, when the conditions are right, algal blooms can occur that produce dangerous levels of the toxin, Renstrom said.

This July 2016 file photo shows a toxic algae bloom that covered much of Utah Lake. Over 100 people were sickened due to exposure to the bloom according to The Associated Press, Utah County, Utah, July 2016 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, St. George News

Tests on parts of the North Fork of the Virgin River came back positive for the toxins July 10. Additional tests took place earlier this week, through results are pending, Justin Mendenhall, a spokesman for the DEQ, said Thursday.

The locations and results of the tests can be found on the DEQ’s website.

As of Thursday evening, four locations within Zion National Park where algal blooms have been found have tested positive for the toxins. At five other sites, which includes a spot farther north and spots where the river passes through Springdale and Rockville, algal blooms have been found and are currently waiting on testing results.

A press release sent out Thursday afternoon for the town of Springdale said that water and algae samples were collected by National Park Service employees at several points in Springdale this week for testing, “including several areas frequented by river users.”

“These samples results should be available by early next week. Additional areas of testing will be conducted in the coming week.”

Quail Creek reservoir as seen from an outlook at its northern end, Quail Creek State Park, Utah, May 1, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Springdale is also testing its culinary water daily. So far the test results have been negative for the toxins.

Results from samples taken at other points along the river are also awaiting test results.

Due to concerns over the algal blooms in the Virgin River, the water district currently isn’t diverting river water into Sand Hollow or Quail Creek reservoirs, Renstrom said.

However, if an algal bloom did occur in one of the reservoirs, the water district is ready for it, he said, adding that district personnel closely monitor such issues at the water treatment plant. On top of that, the treatment plant’s filtration system would kill the toxin as it made its way through the plant.

The Quail Creek Water Treatment Plant. Tours held at the facility were a part of the Washington County Water District’s “Water Week,” an annual event aimed at educating the public about the water they use, Hurricane, Utah, May 10, 2018 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The systems we use are much more satisfied and more thorough” than something like a simple filter used for camping, Renstrom said. “We can handle a situation like that if it came in our treatment plant – the water is completely safe to drink.”

The water district, National Park Service, Utah DEQ and towns along the Virgin River are working together to monitor and address the algal bloom issue and will update the public accordingly, Renstrom added.

Due to the health risks toxins from the algal blooms pose to individuals and their pets, the Southern Utah Public Health Department issue the following precautions:

  • Do not swim in the river.
  • Do not submerge your head underwater.
  • Avoid areas of algae scum.
  • Do not allow pets to play in the river, drink river water or eat algal scum.
  • Do not drink the river water, including water passed through a personal purifier.
  • If possible, livestock should be provided an alternate source of water and should have restricted access to the river.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.


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