New app encourages public help in combating blue green algae

By Kelcy Dolan
Posted 8/4/16

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t be everywhere at once, so with a new smartphone and Android app they are looking to local residents for assistance.

On Tuesday morning …

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New app encourages public help in combating blue green algae


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t be everywhere at once, so with a new smartphone and Android app they are looking to local residents for assistance.

On Tuesday morning representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the city, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch gathered for a presentation on the app. The presentation was in front of the EPA’s mobile testing lab, situated at the Gorton’s Pond fishing pier near the police station. The mobile lab provides immediate water sampling and testing for New England communities.

Curt Spalding, EPA regional administrator, explained that although the mobile lab can be used on a number of different projects, for now its main focus is addressing the growing issue of cyanobacteria, or blue green algae.

“Cyanobacteria is a global problem. These bacteria live everywhere and can cause concerns for both human and animal health,” Spalding said.

The mobile lab helps the EPA visit various communities and bodies of water to identify when and where cyanobacteria are present.

As an emerging problem, Spalding said the EPA was searching for a way to be proactive, to protect our natural resources because in the presence of cyanobacteria, bodies of water are often off limits for recreation no matter the depth of prevalence.

In response, the EPA launched BloomWatch, a mobile application that allows residents to take a picture of a possibly affected body of water to send not only to the EPA, but also the local state agency, in this case DEM. The state can then have a database of information of areas in need of testing and can better use their forces to address problem areas and verify whether or not and area is affected and issue the proper advisory.

Jane Sawyers from DEM’s Office of Water Resources said, “We can’t be everywhere, but you can help us know where we need to be.”

She explained that the app would help the state agency prioritize and identify problem areas throughout Rhode Island. Then the agency can either quell concerns or issue advisories when needed.

The image, which will be submitted alongside a report with a description of the area as well as weather conditions, will also be uploaded to, allowing for global tracking of the issue.

Hillary Snook, a senior environmental scientist for EPA New England, said BloomWatch is the agency’s way of engaging the public on the issue, to help in identifying problem areas. He said although it is not so much a problem in Rhode Island, there are concerns in areas like Maine, where scientists can’t get to every remote smaller body of water, not knowing there were huge cyanobacteria concerns.

“This gets more people on the ground to identify and monitor an issue and the occurrence of cyanobacteria,” Snook said. “We can look at the global impact this bacteria is having.”

BloomWatch has only been available for a short time, but already Snook said he has heard from people in Colorado, Great Britain, and Italy who want to get involved with the app.

Spalding said, “Using regularly available technology, like a smartphone, we can get more people involved, more data. We can leverage that data to make better decisions to make sure we are addressing the right areas moving forward. Then we can help cities and towns better deal with this concern.”

Although there is no immediate solution to cyanobacteria, there are long-term steps that can be taken in an effort to “stop the flow” of nutrients, predominantly nitrogen, that help cyanobacteria flourish.

Avedisian said, “This is a great tool that can help get the job done more effectively and efficiently.”

Linda Green, director of the URI Watershed Watch, said the program has volunteers across Rhode Island that are trained to be “our eyes on the water,” out in the field monitoring and sampling different bodies of water and “local knowledge” will help them better track which areas should be targeted for more specific monitoring and are potentially affected with cyanobacteria.

For those looking to do a little more in the battle against cyanobacteria, the EPA is also hosting cyanoScope. This program helps to train and assist people to actually test water themselves with a specialized microscopy kit. These kits allow smartphones to be connected to the microscope for individuals to take “research grade photos,” to then send along to state agencies or upload to a larger database, iNaturalist. This is just one more way to help environmental agencies collect data.

“This is helping us determine where these blooms are occurring and information on why they are occurring, how we can best defend against them in the future,” Snook said.

Spalding noted that Rhode Island has always been a leader in clean water initiatives and he would hope we don’t “lose ground” on the issue.

Over the past year he said our area has seen a decrease in cyanobacteria due to the lack of rain in the state, nutrient rich stormwater being a component in cyanobacteria growth.

“We are not masters of how nature works, but we need to do our best with preventable and coping measures,” Spalding said. “We are excited for this effort. This will help give us an idea of how big of a problem we are facing.”

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