2019's Big Stories Shaping Austin's Path Into a New Decade

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Feb. 7: The Water Isn't Fine – Zebra Mussels and Blue-Green Algae


They look innocent, you say? (Image via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

"What's that smell?" was the question on everyone's lips in February when clusters – yes, clusters – of dead zebra mussels were discovered clinging to the pipes of the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, thereby lending a funky, fetid odor and taste to the tap water of Central and South Austin. The smell eventually faded away, and by March, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced that no new lakes had been infested with the invasive species, though 15 of the 60+ lakes monitored were already infested, another six more had been marked "positive" (i.e., the invasive species had been detected more than once), and eight were "suspect," with the mussel or its larvae identified only once.

But just when we thought those pesky mussels – which seem to spread like, well, an invasive species – had done their worst damage to Austin waterways, a toxic blue-green algae bloomed along Red Bud Isle, Auditorium Shores, and in Barton Creek between Barton Springs Pool and Lady Bird Lake. Sure enough, scientists have shown that these blooms follow when zebra mussels eat up all the other, friendlier algae. Like a Creepshow monster, the bloom hit at the height of July's heat wave and largely targeted our beloved four-legged friends, killing at least five dogs before the popular swimming holes were shut down. In November, once temperatures finally dropped – the only sure way to rid water of harmful algae – the city reopened Red Bud Isle after Nov. 12 water samples showed no sign of toxins and the blue-green algae was no longer visible. But dog owners may never again take their pets for a swim, upon the city's warning that "another harmful algal bloom may occur at any time in any part" of Lady Bird Lake. Luckily, this type of toxic algae is most apt to bloom when the weather is hot and dry for long periods of time, which rarely ever happens here, right? – Sarah Marloff

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Top 10s 2019, Zebra Mussels, Blue-Green Algae, Travis County District Attorney's Office, Margaret Moore, Mindy Montford, survivors' lawsuit, Emily Borchardt, José Garza, Erin Martinson, Austin Firefighters Association, No (D.A.) Moore, 86th Texas Legislature, Dennis Bonnen, Steve Adler, Austin City Council, decriminalize homelessness, Greg Abbott, Travis County Public Defender's Office, Texas Indigent Defense Commission

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