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Ohio River algae bloom hinders fun on water

Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins Algae sits on the water of the Ohio River near the Parkersburg Yacht Club lot of Rita Duty Monday.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins
Algae sits on the water of the Ohio River near the Parkersburg Yacht Club lot of Rita Duty Monday.

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — The skies were clear but the water wasn’t Monday as the presence of algae put a damper on what is traditionally a big weekend on the river.

“We would be on our pontoon boat; we would be swimming; our dog would be swimming with us,” said Cindy Hein, a member of the Parkersburg Yacht Club, as she and her husband, Bob, visited with fellow member Rita Duty on dry land. “Normally this is the last big hurrah before fall.”

But with blue-green algae blooms spotted along the Ohio River from Wheeling to the Kentucky border in recent days, state and local health officials in West Virginia and Ohio are advising people to exercise caution and avoid swimming, water skiing and boating in areas where foam, scum or mats of algae are visible. Some forms of blue-green algae carry toxins that pose a threat to humans and animals, but it cannot be determined visually whether a bloom is toxic.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources attributes the algae, which has been spotted up and down the Ohio River in recent weeks, to a runoff of nutrients into the river, such as from excessive fertilizing of fields or septic tank overflows.

“I would say 95 percent of the people have stayed out of the water,” said Gary Hardin, another Parkersburg Yacht Club member. “There’s been boating activity but very little of the water skiing (or) tubing with the children.”

The river was tinged green along the bank at the club Monday. Some folks could be seen traveling the river in boats, but many watercraft remained tied up at docks.

Duty said the algae cleared up some Sunday afternoon and evening, but returned Monday.

“It’s worse today, actually,” she said.

The City of Marietta issued an advisory Thursday warning that evidence of microcystin – an algae product that can cause numbness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, abnormal liver function and skin irritation or rashes – had been detected in the area. It urges people not to drink or swim in the water or allow pets and livestock to do the same.

Jim Heydinger, general manager of Boathouse BBQ on Virginia Street in Marietta, said the river seemed relatively clear Sunday and Monday.

“We’ve still had a lot of boat traffic, but you don’t see a lot of people swimming and tubing,” he said.

Organizers of the annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival, which kicks off Friday, are monitoring the situation, said Evy Bryant, director general for the festival. They passed out copies of the city’s notice to the captains of boats arriving at the Ohio River Levee for the event, but right now aren’t expecting any significant impact.

“Nothing has changed. Nothing will change,” Bryant said.

Captains already docked at the levee are aware of the situation.

“They were very relaxed and not concerned,” Bryant said.

The condition of the water is also being watched in advance of the second annual Parkersburg Paddlefest, slated for Sept. 19. A portion of the Ohio River will be closed to everyone but registered paddlers from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. that day.

Mark Lewis, executive director of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it’s too early to tell what effect algae could have on the event. Hopefully, weather conditions will cooperate and clear it out in advance, he said.

“If we were to experience some significant rain, I would expect that it would bust that up and we would be good to go,” Lewis said.

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