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Toxic blue green-algae bloom in Murray River

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Nature

Algal bloom on water

Algal bloom on the water.

Credit: Arthur Mostead

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The Murray River is subject to a continued and spreading algal bloom, now extending towards fragile downstream areas.

"We now have approximately 800 kilometres of Murray River under a red alert warning," said Richard Swan, Chairman of the Murray Regional Algal Coordinating Committees (MRACC).

The area under greatest threat stretches from the Hume Dam at Albury in New South Wales to Tooleybuc, west of Swan Hill, in Victoria.

Owen Russell, Chair of the Sunraysia Regional Algal Coordinating Committee (SRACC) said the results of water sampling indicated that the bloom was moving downstream, and given the continued warm, clear weather, there was little chance of the bloom dispersing any time soon.

"The occurrence of [the large] algal bloom in our river, coupled with our lower lakes [being] in such a desperate condition must ring alarm bells in our society that we've got a major problem in managing the precious Murray-Darling," said John Williams, Commissioner for the Natural Resources Commission, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

"The issue of algal blooms is about flow regimes, nutrient loading and the nature of the water reservoirs and
waterways along the system," he said. "[In order to address it], we need to accelerate our water reform."

Murray-Darling Basin states and the Commonwealth have recently established a panel of experts and senior officials to advise the ongoing response to the outbreak.

The Murray-Darling Blue-Green Algal Bloom Advisory Panel will be chaired by Murray-Darling Basin Authority Chief Executive Rob Freeman, and include leading experts in the fields of water quality, river ecology, public health and animal health and toxicology.

"[Basin] state and federal authorities have been working co-operatively with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in a co-ordinated response to the outbreak," said Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change and Water. "The Advisory Panel will formalise this process, advising State and Commonwealth governments, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, on the best way forward."

The species of blue-green algae identified in the river are potentially toxic, and may cause gastroenteritis in people if consumed, and skin and eye irritations after contact. Boiling the water does not inactivate algal toxins.

People are advised not to enter the water, and not to drink untreated water or bathe in water drawn from the river whilst the red alert warning is in place. Eating mussels or crayfish from red alert warning areas is also discouraged, and fish caught in the river should be cleaned thoroughly, and internal organs disposed of, before consumption.

Updates about blue-green algae blooms and red alert warning areas can be obtained from the Algal Information Hotline on 1800 999 457 (free call).