Project Information

Proposed Problem:

The barrier between oversight and implementation of policies has resulted in a scarcity of detailed, organized, and standardized documentation regarding the history of cyanoHABs in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This has prevented the MassDEP from fully understanding the scope of the cyanobacteria threat throughout the state, as well as understand the steps taken by PWSs to prevent and respond to a cyanobacteria event, both of which are essential for developing plans to manage the cyanobacteria threat.


Executive Summary

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 29% of the global population, nearly 1.8 billion people, were without immediate access to safe, potable water (WHO, 2016). The inability to access safe drinking water forces people to consume unsanitary water which can cause a variety of illnesses. These illnesses, which include cholera and dysentery, are responsible for over 3 million deaths a year (Vestergaard, 2014). Meanwhile in the United States, nearly all Americans have access to safe drinking water (Riggs, 2018). For over 100 million Americans, this accessibility to safe water in the United States is due to extensive infrastructural systems which are maintained by Public Water Systems (PWSs; Riggs, 2018), and overseen by state and federal authorities.

While PWSs greatly reduce the risk of waterborne illness, their effectiveness can be hampered by the effects of climate change and contaminants. Increase in precipitation due to climate change (NASA, 2011) coupled with urbanization and agricultural land use allows greater amounts of nutrients to runoff from the land after rainfall and into water bodies. These factors promote the formation of a cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom (CyanoHAB; Beaton, Suuberg, & Fine, 2018). Cyanobacteria, such as Anabaena and Microcystis, are native to all water bodies and may produce cyanotoxins such as microcystin and cylindrospermopsin as a part of regular cell functions (Beaton et al., 2018). When toxin producing cells die, the cyanotoxins are released, and can cause serious illness including vomiting, pneumonia, liver failure, and death (EPA, 2019). While human deaths and illness from cyanobacteria are rare, 52 patients at a Brazilian dialysis treatment facility died following use of water with high levels of cyanotoxins (Carmichael et al., 2001). Additionally, between 2000 and 2013, 108 dogs have died from cyanotoxin poisoning (Backet, Landsberg, Miller, Keel, Taylor, 2013).

Because of the health risks of cyanobacteria, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR4) requires PWSs to monitor for 10 cyanotoxins. However, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has only developed guidance for PWSs to use in preventing, monitoring, and responding to cyanobacteria blooms in surface drinking water supplies. While this guidance is helpful, PWSs are not required to enact the methods outlined in the guidance. Additionally, MassDEP does not have a standardized method for reporting and recording a CyanoHAB.

The goal of this project was to create a historical overview of cyanobacteria events in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in order to develop outreach materials that will be targeted toward PWS which use surface water sources. Through the completion of this project, we assessed instances of cyanobacteria events in surface drinking water supplies in Massachusetts since 2015, identified and compared the prevention methods recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and utilized by PWSs for cyanobacteria events, identified the response methods developed and utilized by MassDEP and PWSs for cyanobacteria events, and developed informational materials for MassDEP and PWSs.


To achieve the goal of our project, we competed four objectives which involved:

  • Assessing instances of cyanobacteria events in PWSs which utilize surface drinking water supplies;
  • Identifying and comparing the cyanobacteria prevention methods recommended by MassDEP and utilized by PWSs;
  • Identifying the response methods developed and utilized by MassDEP and PWSs for cyanobacteria events and
  • Developing informational material for MassDEP and PWSs.

Our team accomplished these objectives by analyzing the Cyano Tracking Database (CTD) which was created as a personal initiative of our sponsor and contains information on reported cyanobacteria events in surface drinking water supplies since 2015. During this process, the team determined various topics of interest which included location of bloom, event type, preventative maintenance, response, emergency response plan, and resolution. We then formed these topics of interest into a template to be used when recording a bloom event to ensure consistent record keeping.

After the completion of this outline, we developed survey and interview questions to obtain additional information about the reported events. Additionally, we developed survey questions to determine the existence of non-reported cyanobacteria events, and the steps taken by both MassDEP and PWSs in preparing for and responding to cyanobacteria events.

From the information gathered during our 8 MassDEP employee interviews, 3 PWS employee interviews, 4 survey results, and research, we developed informational materials for PWSs and MassDEP



By completing our first three objectives and analyzing our results, we identified seven findings relevant to cyanobacteria’s presence in the Commonwealth. We categorize our findings under: Perspectives on Cyanobacteria, PWS Preparedness for Cyanobacteria, Treatment and Monitoring of Surface Water Supplies.

Perspectives on Cyanobacteria:

  • Finding 1: Existence of an Algal Monitoring Plan is associated with PWS level of concern.
  • Finding 2: There are mixed opinions among MassDEP and PWS employees about whether publicity of Cyanobacteria impacts their work.

Treatment and Monitoring of Surface Water Supplies

  • Finding 3: There is concern regarding current methods used to treat cyanobacteria events
  • Finding 4: MassDEP and PWS employees believe Phycocyanin (PC) monitoring is an appropriate method to monitor raw water
  • Finding 5: MassDEP and PWS employees highlighted uncontrolled runoff entering a PWS’ watershed and water source as a concern
  • Finding 6: PWSs do not fully utilize their resources provided by the MassDEP for response, such as FAST



We proposed the following recommendations to both MassDEP and PWSs for preventing, monitoring, and responding to cyanobacteria events.

MassDEP should suggest the monitoring of phycocyanin (PC) as part of best watershed management practices

If MassDEP suggests PC monitoring through in-vivo fluorescence as part of best watershed management practices, the risk of cyanobacteria for drinking water supplies can be further minimized. PC, a pigment unique to cyanobacteria, can be used to quickly determine the cyanobacteria population in the water source. Two out of 11 individuals interviewed have already implemented In-vivo fluorescence monitoring of PC when monitoring for or responding to a cyanobacteria event.

MassDEP should develop a standardized, inter-regional database for recording cyanobacteria events specific to surface drinking water supplies

Kristin Divris tracks cyanobacteria events as a personal initiative. However, such tracking databases only include events reported to MassDEP, and do not all include important information about a bloom, such as cell counts and toxin levels. The development of a standardized, inter-regional database would allow MassDEP to better record and understand the details of cyanobacteria events in Massachusetts. A standardized database should include information such as:

    • the way the bloom was discovered and reported;
    • the cell count and toxin levels;
    • the site’s preventive protection plan;
    • the chemical or non-chemical response to the event;
    • changes to their Emergency Response Plan that occurred due to this event and
    • a write up of the way the bloom resolved including total length of event and any shutdowns that occurred.

MassDEP could use an organized database to understand any emerging trends in bloom events, the frequency of events and their impact. Additionally, this system would allow PWSs to use historical information when developing their prevention, monitoring, and response plans and methods.

MassDEP should investigate the effects of treatment methods, such as copper sulfate

An investigation into the long-term effects of current treatment methods can potentially prevent future health implications. Copper containing algaecides are frequently used by PWSs in order to treat or prevent a bloom. However, some MassDEP officials expressed concern of the long-term effects of copper loading on the water source. We recommend that MassDEP investigate the effects of the treatment methods used by PWSs. If research shows that copper loading will cause health concerns in the future, MassDEP will need to research and identify different treatment methods to be used throughout the regions.

MassDEP should identify how FAST can be used in response to cyanobacteria events

While the FAST team normally handles waste and hazardous spills, they have the capability to address cyanobacteria events. However, we found that there is a misunderstanding with FAST’s purpose and capabilities, between those who run and those who use the program.  Interviewees working on the FAST program feel they should be receiving more requests, with their program’s capability. With the ability to provide PWS with additional resources, such as amino acid tests for toxin concentrations, FAST can be an asset if used properly. However, we believe that MassDEP needs to work with FAST and identify their intent regarding cyanobacteria.

MassDEP should assess how PWSs have addressed non-point source runoff

Addressing runoff is an example of best watershed management, as the introduction of nutrients promotes cyanobacteria growth.  Four of the 11 interviewees stated runoff is a major concern for water quality, yet none of our four survey respondents have addressed storm water discharge. To alleviate MassDEP employee concern and understand the extent of Guidance implementation, MassDEP should asses how non-point source runoff is being addressed by PWSs. In doing so, they can determine if the Guidance documents are helping or if another approach needs to be taken for watershed management.

MassDEP should redistribute our survey to draw additional conclusions

In creating our PWS survey, we wanted to gauge concern and preparedness of PWS with surface water supplies around the Commonwealth. Although we gathered sufficient data through in-person and phone interviews, we relied on the PWS survey for un-biased results.  However, with our limited survey responses, our claims are preliminary. It would be beneficial for the MassDEP to distribute a similar survey, to possibly relate level of concern to the existence and content of monitoring and emergency response plans, how PWS regional location influenced cyanobacteria efforts, and the extend that the MassDEP Guidance had been implemented.



Access to potable drinking water is necessary for all life. The consumption of unsafe water can lead to a variety of serious illnesses that have killed many people. While drinking water infrastructure can significantly improve water quality, infrastructure has not eliminated all water contaminants. The blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria poses a threat to all forms of life as it can form into a cyanoHAB and produce dangerous cyanotoxins. This threat has grown in recent years as the effects of climate change and land use promote conditions conducive to cyanoHAB development.

This project cannot singlehandedly reduce the threat of cyanobacteria in surface drinking water supplies in Massachusetts. However, we hope that our work with MassDEP has helped to provide a better understanding of the history of cyanobacteria events in surface water supplies in the commonwealth. As the effects of climate change become more apparent, we hope that our findings and recommendations will continue to assist the MassDEP and the PWSs in the state with preparing for and responding to cyanobacteria.