Drinking Water Safe Despite Blue-Green Algae Toxins In Some Ponds

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A toxic organism is affecting water quality in both Toledo, Ohio, and on the East End—but local residents need not worry about the kind of impact on drinking water that there was in Ohio this week.

In recent weeks, scientists have warned about the spread in local ponds of blooms of blue-green algae producing the toxin microcystin. Officials have posted edicts advising residents to refrain from swimming in or letting pets drink from surface waters. Blooms of similar algae, also producing microcystins, forced the City of Toledo to ban drinking from its municipal water systems this week after winds blew algae into intakes, raising fears of poisoning residents.

But East End residents need not worry about the toxic algae seeping into their own drinking waters, since no local residences draw from surface waters for their water supply, and the algae that produce the toxins do not grow in groundwater.

“Some of our wells are 700 or 800 feet deep, and even the shallow ones are hundreds of feet deep,” said Joe Pokorney, deputy CEO of the Suffolk County Water Authority. “There is just no way for any type of organism to live in that environment, where there really is no oxygen. And there’s no sunlight, which is what feeds algae.”

In Toledo, the city’s water systems bring in water directly from the adjacent lake, and strong winds last week blew a large algae bloom into Erie’s southern end, where it was sucked up by water intakes.

On the East End, the same blue-green algae have choked some local ponds in recent weeks, but the algae is in no danger of getting into water systems.

“Lake water is not going to seep into groundwater, even in an extreme situation,” Stony Brook University professor Chris Gobler, Ph.D., said. “If you had a well very close to a pond and it was sucking a lot of water, so much that it drew in some lake water, the sand would filter out any of these toxins.”

Dangerously high levels of blue-green algae have been reported in numerous local ponds, including Mill Pond in Water Mill, Wickapogue Pond and Lake Agawam in Southampton, and Georgica Pond in East Hampton. In East Hampton, the Town Trustees closed off the popular crabbing spot because of fears about the toxin, though levels of the actual toxins blue-green algae can produce were found to be lower this week than feared.

“We’re really lucky,” Dr. Gobler said. “If we were relying on surface waters around here for our drinking water, we’d be in trouble.”

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