Part I: Blue-Green Algae & Your Search Dog

In this 4-part series a few of our trusted experts have joined us to help get clear on the facts surrounding the recent deaths caused by blue-green algae and what you need to know to keep your dog safe when responding to call-outs. Today we welcome Wetlands & Streams Scientist and FEMA Canine Search Specialist Dr. Eliodora Chamberlain to help us better understand what exactly is blue-green algae and where we should be keeping our eyes out for it.

What is blue-green algae?

Blue-green algae, more correctly known as cyanobacteria, are frequently found in freshwater systems. They are photosynthetic organisms that can feed off the sun to make their own energy and release oxygen. They are often confused with green algae because both can produce dense mats that can impede activities like swimming and fishing, and may cause odor problems and oxygen depletion; however, unlike cyanobacteria, green algae are not generally thought to produce toxins.

Blue-green algae are a natural part of water-based ecosystems. They become a problem when nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) are present in concentrations above what would occur naturally. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are overgrowths of algae in water. Some produce dangerous toxins in fresh or marine water, but even nontoxic blooms hurt the environment and local economies.

Where is it found?

Harmful algal blooms are a major environmental problem in all 50 states in freshwater, estuaries and marine waters.

When does it appear?

HABs occur in waters (ponds, reservoirs, detention basins, lakes) that are nutrient-rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, exposed to a lot of sunlight, and/or in water that is slow-moving or stagnant.

What does it look like (and what doesn’t it look like)?

Harmful algal blooms can be green, blue, red or brown. The water may look foamy, scummy or look like paint on the surface of the water. You might also see dead animals floating in the water.

Here are examples of what it does look like:

6 images of blue-green algae

Download full pdf of images HERE.


Click HERE for examples of what it doesn’t look like (Green algae).

How to tell if there is blue-green algae in the water?

A trained biologist can examine samples with a microscope to determine the exact type and number of organisms present, and some laboratories are equipped to test whether toxins from blue-green algae are present. However, anyone can perform a stick test or a jar test to determine whether a given algae sample is likely to be blue-green or another type.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Testing 

For private water bodies, one can do a quick “stick” or “jar test”. This is a self-assessment tool to see if a farm pond or lake may have blue-green algae present. However, it does not tell you which species are present. Remember that blue-green algae is naturally present in the environment, and it only becomes hazardous when phosphorus and nitrogen are present in concentrations above what would occur naturally and they begin to produce toxins.

Learn more about the “jar test”…

Lab Testing

To definitively test if a water body has cyanotoxins/HABs, it is best to have it tested in a lab. This can be done through your state agency (environment or health) or local university. State departments of health or environment are the best sources for local information about harmful algal blooms.

Get more information on cyanoHABs in your state or report a suspected bloom…

How can a handler find out if there is a HAB in an area they are asked to search?

State Environmental or Health Agency

If you are searching/training in an unknown area, research the lat/long (or address), and look up nearby water bodies. Then go to that state’s environmental/health agency website and find a listing for contaminated waters and/or algal bloom alerts.

This can be found under a state agency’s website possibly under their Clean Water Act 303(d) listings webpage (impaired waters list), or under their recreational water listings.

Here’s a few examples of what you should look for (click on images to see full site):

example screen of state resource
example screen of state resource
example screen of state resource



There are also online mapping resources that can tell you if a water body is impaired, and what it is impaired for. One such resource is the EPA’s WATER GeoViewer that will allow you to put in an address, a lat/long or other geographic location information you are searching.

STEP 1: Launch WATERS GeoViewer.

STEP 2: In the left hand column “Layers”  > “Feature Layers” > “303(d) Listed Impaired Waters”. The map will highlight (in red) any impaired waters in that area.

EPA WATERS GeoViewer showing impaired water

STEP 3: Click on the red highlighted impaired water line on the map itself, and the EPA Linked Data box will pop up.  This box has 2 parts . 

EPA WATERS GeoViewer sample screen

Part 1 of 2 will give you 303(d) Listed Impaired Water information. Click on “More about this Linked Data Feature”, and it will take you to the Waterbody Quality Assessment Report from the last year it was monitored. On that webpage, you find information on the current Causes of Impairment. If you click on the “Watershed Report”, it will give you information about that stream or wetland such as stream name, watershed data, stream flow, land cover data, etc.

EPA WATERS GeoViewer sample screen

Part 2 of 2 will give you Surface Water Feature information about the waterbody itself and the link to the same “Watershed Report”.

Any final advice for your fellow canine handlers?

My dogs LOVE water, and one of the first things I teach my dogs (in hot weather during training) is that they are only allowed to have access to water under my command. I’m not saying that they are perfect (well, because they’re dogs!), but I do my best. And I highly recommend that under hot or extremely hot conditions to be proactive about the heat status of your dog. In hot weather conditions, the best way to keep them out of the water (or listen to you with that “leave it” command) is to make sure they don’t get to that point of overheating. Always take excess water with you during training or during a search.

Author Dr. Eliodora Chamberlain and her search dog

Dr. Eliodora Chamberlain graduated with a B.S. in Zoology from the University of California, Davis. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in California, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. After being in the field, she entered graduate school to complete her M.S. and Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences and the USGS Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Extension Unit.

For almost 20 years, she conducted research work in Swimming Capacity of Sea Bass-Scripps Research Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA; Behavior of Seals-Scripps Research Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA; Toxicological Impacts of Selenium on Wetland Birds-Delano, CA; Toxicological Impacts of Pesticides on Small Mammals-Corvallis, OR; Behavior and Physiological Ecology of Bobwhite Quail-throughout Missouri; Endangered Kirtland’s Warbler Reproductive Success and Habitat Ecology-Huron National Forest, Mio, MI; Threatened & Endangered Wetland and Shorebirds in Saltwater Marsh Population Dynamics and Distribution-San Diego, CA; Habitat Use and Distribution of Turtles, Snakes, Lizards, Salamanders, and other Amphibians on the St. Croix River, WI & MN; and Black-tail Deer Reproduction-Davis, CA.

She currently works in the Water Division at the US Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 in Kansas City. She is a Wetlands and Streams Scientist working with the States and Tribes on wetland program capacity building, wetland monitoring and assessment, and oversees 14 research projects in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Kickapoo Nation, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Meskwaki Nation, Sac & Fox of MO in Kansas and Nebraska Nation, and the Santee Sioux Nation.

She is a member of FEMA’s Missouri Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team since 1999. She has certified 4 disaster dogs of her own, trained and mentored canine handlers from across the country to certification, conducted evaluations of potential canine disaster candidates, worked with canine handlers and programs to modify their training plans/programs, diagnosed and solved unique behavioral problems with search dogs, and developed creative and innovative approaches to redirect undesirable dog behavior. She’s been on 18 Task Force disaster deployments, and has been on numerous wilderness searches with her dogs. She is also a FEMA Lead Canine Evaluator, FEMA Canine Instructor, and a Fire Instructor.

When she’s not busy with work or working her dogs, you will find her competing in NADAC Dog Agility competitions, remodeling her 1955 Mid-Century Modern home, or lusting after someone else’s MCM home!

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