(Katharine Jose/Austonia)

Lady Bird Lake was a popular destination for dogs before the blue-green algae bloom of last year.

Even on a sweltering summer afternoon, a few dozen people still made it out to Red Bud Isle on Lady Bird Lake Tuesday to escape their homes and walk their dogs. But the place—an idyllic 13-acre dog park hidden away in West Austin—has a dark chapter in its recent history.


Exactly one year ago, a dog died after swimming near a mat of what would later turn out to be a toxic algae bloom. Over the course of the next weeks, the neurotoxin-containing species killed several more dogs before the city banned pets from the water.

The ban lasted until November, when the tests run by the city finally showed that the algae bloom had dissipated.

Now, the city, with help from University of Texas molecular biosciences professor Schonna Manning, runs regular tests of water samples from all along the lake in hopes of catching the next bloom as soon as it becomes a problem.

Developing a warning system

By sheer luck, Manning had an existing contract in place with the city of Austin last summer to study algae in Lady Bird Lake, allowing them to draw a connection between the dogs' deaths and the algae bloom quickly.

The teams has created a swift warning system, with a 1-2 day turnaround, so that as soon as toxic algae appears, the city can begin putting up signs warning the public of dangerous areas and ban pets from the water, if necessary.

"We have kind of a gauged warning system from green to red, depending on the appearance of the lake, as well as what we've found both genetically and biochemically," Manning said.

For now, at least, Manning said her team has not noticed anything in Lady Bird Lake to cause alarm. But that can change in as little as a few days.

Visiting the lake

The first major samples of the summer were taken last week and are still being analyzed.

Jonie Mulder, a writer who lives in Tarrytown, brought her dog CJ out to Red Bud Isle Tuesday. She said it was one of the first times in more than a year that she had visited. When reports came out last year about dogs dying after swimming around Red Bud Isle, Mulder said she immediately stopped going, saying it wasn't worth the risk.

Now, however, Mulder said she just hopes her dog stays away from algae mats when she swims, but that there isn't any signage around the isle to warn of any potential danger.

"As soon as they said like it was killing dogs," Mulder said she stopped going. But Mulder said CJ is "squeamish as it is" and would have avoided sludge or large algae flats, anyway.

No signs of harmful algae yet this year

Stephanie Lott, a spokeswoman for the Austin Watershed Protection Department, which works with Manning on studying the algae, told Austonia that, "When we went out last week, we did not see any suspicious looking algae to send to the UT lab."

Regardless of definitive tests on the presence of toxic algae, Manning said the most important thing for anyone letting their dog swim in any body of water, not just Lady Bird Lake, is to trust their eyes and nose.

"If you look at the water and it looks kind of scuzzy, and there is stuff floating on top, that's definitely a warning that, possibly, it's not going to be a healthy place to go in," Manning said. "So trust your eyes and trust your nose. I mean, if it smells bad, if it looks bad, it's likely bad."

Want to read more stories like this one? Start every day with a quick look at what's happening in Austin. Sign up for Austonia.com's free daily morning email.
 

(Emma Freer)

The Texas Army National Guard dispatched troops to the state Capitol in June amid protests over the death of George Floyd.

The Texas Army National Guard said Monday that it had been ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott to dispatch 1,000 troops to five major cities across the state, including Austin, in connection with the election.

Keep Reading Show less
(Laura Figi/Austonia)

The Central Austin Public Library, located on 710 W. César Chávez St., was vandalized with red paint this morning.

Keep Reading Show less

Cold weather is finally hitting Austin, which means it's time to enjoy staying at home and bundling up with some cozy meals.

If you haven't become the cook of your dreams since the pandemic hit, now is the perfect time to try out these recipes which will surely warm your belly.

Keep Reading Show less
Minister of Culture Matthew McConaughey talks preserving Austin culture on Joe Rogan podcast

Academy-award winning actor Matthew McConaughey explains his goals for Austin, in his role as the minister of culture of the University of Texas, and what it means to be an Austinite on Joe Rogan's podcast.

Keep Reading Show less
(Peter Svensk/Flickr)

A second, stronger cold front is expected to hit tonight—bringing chilly weather through at least the rest of the week and rainy weather through Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
(Kamala Harris)

Sen. Kamala Harris, Democratic vice presidential candidate, will make a campaign stop in Texas on Friday—the last day of early voting in the state—according to an email sent to Democratic lawmakers.

Keep Reading Show less
(Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune)

As fall progresses, Texas public school superintendents are realizing that virtual instruction simply is not working for thousands of students across the state.

Keep Reading Show less