Sonoma County public health officials are weighing the extraordinary step of urging people and their pets to avoid the Russian River after a dog that died moments after swimming in the water last Saturday preliminarily tested positive for a lethal toxin produced by blue-green algae.
Such an advisory, which likely is without precedent, could come on the eve of one of the busiest weekends of the year at the river, when thousands from across the Bay Area and beyond are expected to take advantage of a late-summer heat blast to enjoy leisure time at beaches and hotels, restaurants and other establishments catering to visitors.
Officials have been monitoring the Russian River for about a month after the discovery of potentially toxic blue-green algae in the river, found almost exclusively along shoreline areas in shallow and slow-moving water. The discovery prompted the Sonoma County Division of Public Health to issue a public warning Aug. 21 urging people to take precautions, including avoiding the algae and washing after exposure to river water. Warning signs were posted at several beaches.
But the rapidly evolving situation took a dramatic turn late Thursday after officials received preliminary results of tests on a 3-year-old golden retriever that died while on a floating trip north of Wohler Bridge. The preliminary results indicate the dog, which suffered symptoms that included seizures and foaming at the mouth, was infected with a toxin produced by blue-green algae.
Officials say they don’t know where the dog may have come into contact with the algae, whether it was in the river or another water source. But they also acknowledged Thursday that their monitoring efforts to date have been focused on a different toxin than the one found in tissue samples of the dog. Virtually no water testing has occurred in the area where the dog died.
Officials are now scrambling to revamp the testing process, taking additional water samples at points along the river Thursday and sending the samples to labs outside Sonoma County. Those results are not expected until after the holiday weekend.
“Here we’ve been sampling for the presence of this very lethal toxin, and it turns out that it wasn’t the one that did in this poor dog,” said Clayton Creager, watershed stewardship coordinator with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. “We’re left without a lot of information and a lot of uncertainty related to something that potentially could be worrisome for pet owners and even children.”
He said, based on the new findings, officials are considering advising people to avoid getting in the river. Creager was planning to confer Friday morning with officials from county public health, the lead agency responding to the algae outbreak.
Dr. Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer, said late Thursday that she would be awaiting final test results on the deceased dog before deciding what her recommendation will be for people and animals interacting with the river, if at all.
“We want to protect the health of animals and people using the river, but we also don’t want to act on information that’s incorrect or preliminary,” she said.
She said the next steps beyond issuing advisories could include the county restricting access to the river, including beach closures. Holbrook called those actions “extreme measures.”
“Typically we like to get people the information and have them make an informed decision. It’s a pretty big deal to close beaches and close the river,” she said.