DNR monitoring Lake Winnebago drinking water

Lake Winnebago is seen on Aug. 11, 2014.

LAKE WINNEBAGO - Blue-green algae has stopped some people and animals from swimming this summer in Lake Winnebago. But is it also affecting the drinking water?

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is continuing to monitor the algae. Scientists and farmers have said phosphorus from agriculture runoff is feeding the blooms.

For two days last week, 400,000 people in Ohio and southeast Michigan had to drink bottled water. That was a direct cause of toxins from algae.

FOX 11 wanted to know if a similar situation could happen in Northeast Wisconsin. Chris Shaw, the director of Appleton's water system, said it's unlikely for now.

"Blue-green algae's been a concern for water providers for probably ten years," said Shaw.

Shaw said the city of Appleton has the infrastructure to handle it.

"We have a number of different chemicals throughout the treatment processes doing different things," he said.

Shaw also pointed out that algae typically builds up close to shore. Appleton pulls its water from near the center of Lake Winnebago. So do Menasha, Neenah and Oshkosh.

"The systems we have currently on Lake Winnebago are able to treat for microcystin," said Steve Elmore of the DNR.

Microcystin is a toxin from blue-green algae. Elmore, the public water supply section chief for the DNR, said his agency is closely following research from a UW-Milwaukee health professor.

"We're definitely looking at the issue," he said. "It's always concerning when you see levels of a contaminant, in this case microcystin increasing so dramatically."

Elmore said levels of the toxin in Lake Winnebago are ten times higher than they were 13 years ago.

Treatment plants are able to remove it. However, there are no state or federal regulations about acceptable levels of microcystin.

The Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin believes there should be.

"I think residents need to be assured that their drinking water is safe," said Dean Hoegger, the president and executive director of the council.

If water was contaminated by the algae, it could cause diarrhea, vomiting and liver problems.

Elmore said the DNR and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have discussed creating microsystin level regulations.

“There’s a process to put regulations in place, and so it may be some time before we see any drinking water regulations related to microcystin," he said.

Meanwhile, Elmore said the DNR isn't as concerned with drinking water and blue-green algae in the waters of Green Bay. That's because Marinette is the only municipality in the state that gets drinking water from the bay.

"Knowing where Marinette's intake is into the lake, it heads north into the State of Michigan waters," said Elmore.

Menominee, Michigan also gets its drinking water from Green Bay. Elmore said algal blooms have not recently occurred that far north in the bay.

The city of Green Bay and many surrounding communities get water from Lake Michigan off the shores of Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties.