A day at a secluded sandy beach on the Columbia River just north of the Tri-Cities ended with a family dog dead, likely from toxic algae.
The family reported the death to the Benton Franklin Health District on Monday morning. By the end of the day officials were also looking into the deaths of two other dogs that swam near Leslie Groves and Howard Amon parks, as well as upstream.
Water samples had been collected and warning signs posted, the health district said shortly after 5 p.m. Monday.
The first report Monday came from Erin Dickey of Richland.
She said she, her kids, her parents and her brother had put a boat into the water at Richland’s Leslie Groves Park boat ramp on Sunday and headed several miles upriver to a sandy beach on the Benton County side of the Columbia River.
Her parents, Janet and Tony Ogden of Richland, brought their 1-year-old terrier mix, Charlie, a rescue dog they adopted in October.
A playful, fun-loving dog, Charlie often goes boating with Dickey’s father and loves playing in the water, Dickey said.
The beach where the family stopped, just south of the Ringold boat ramp on the Franklin side of the river, has a stretch of quiet water between rocks.
The water looked “scummy,” Dickey said. But that’s not unusual for this time of year and it never entered her mind that it might have toxic algae.
Charlie ran in and out of the water and took a couple of small sips. Then she put her face in the water, Dickey said.
“Within minutes she started convulsing,” Dickey said. “It was wild.”
The family quickly loaded up the boat and called an emergency veterinarian in Pasco.
The first question they were asked was whether there was blue algae in the water, Dickey said.
Toxicity of algae blooms vary
Toxic algae blooms vary in appearance, but commonly look like pea soup, are blue-green or turquoise in color.
The toxicity of each bloom also can vary and be difficult to predict, according to the Washington state Department of Health.
Toxicity can change from one day to the next. It isn’t possible to determine how dangerous a bloom is to people and animals by looking at it. Only testing can tell if it is dangerous.
“If you see water that looks like an algae bloom, stay away from the water,” said Rick Dawson, senior manager at the Benton Franklin Health District. “Keep your animals, pets, children away from the water.”
Janet Ogden had wrapped up Charlie, and the family is not sure if she was still alive when they got back to the Leslie Groves Park boat ramp. They had been almost as far north as the Ringold boat launch.
Dickey’s brother also took his dog along, but that dog only played on the beach.
Dickey says she didn’t even consider the possibility of toxic algae when they stopped on the beach, never having heard of it on the Columbia River before.
Dogs die in Spokane area
Toxic algae most often blooms in lakes. Thirteen blooms are listed in lakes by the Washington State Freshwater Algae Control Program.
Earlier this summer, Scooteney Reservoir north of Pasco was closed because of toxic levels of the bacteria Microcystin in an algae bloom there.
But slow-moving water in streams and rivers also can allow for growths of the toxic algae.
This summer, four dogs died in the Spokane area after swimming in the Little Spokane River and the Spokane River, both of which have had warm, slow moving and stagnant water this summer.
Drought and warm temperatures have led to reports of toxic algae blooms across Washington state in areas not seen before, warned Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington state epidemiologist, a month ago.
Rick Dawson, senior manager at the health district, said the level of toxins can change rapidly in rivers because the water is moving.
To his memory, toxins due to blue algae in the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities have not previously been detected.
But before Monday, the health district had recent reports of concerns at the campground near Plymouth in southern Benton County, at Bateman Island and at the Columbia Park lagoon. Toxins were not detected at levels of concern.
Although Scooteney Reservoir has reopened, it may have another bloom and a check is planned there this week.
Pets, children at risk
People, pets and wildlife can be exposed to the potentially deadly toxin by ingesting the water.
Bacteria produced in toxic algae blooms is particularly dangerous for small children and animals, according to the Benton Franklin Health District.
Symptoms can appear in people in 30 minutes to 24 hours, depending on the size of the person and the amount of toxins swallowed. They include jaundice, shock, abdominal pain, weakness, vomiting, severe thirst and a pulse that may be rapid or weak.
Dogs and other animals are often exposed by drinking contaminated water, swallowing water while swimming or licking the toxin and bacteria from their fur, according to the state Department of Health.
If you suspect your pets or livestock have been exposed to a toxic algae bloom, immediately wash them off with clean water to keep them from licking the bacteria off their fur.
Possible signs that your pet might have been exposed to a harmful algae bloom may include vomiting or diarrhea, loss of coordination, and tremors and seizures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People who swim or play in possibly contaminated water should shower with soap and water when done, according to the local health district. They should contact a doctor immediately if they have symptoms.