Impact of extreme wet and dry years on the persistence of Microcystis harmful algal blooms in San Francisco Estuary

P. W. Lehman, T. Kurobe, S. J. Teh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Cyanobacteria harmful algal blooms (CHABs) became a concern in the upper San Francisco Estuary, California beginning in 1999, when yearly blooms of Microcystis began in the Delta region. Subsequent research identified that the increase in the magnitude, duration and toxicity of Microcystis blooms was associated with drought related conditions of elevated water temperature and low streamflow. However, the impact of extreme conditions on the resilience of the bloom was unknown. The 2014 and 2017 water years provided a unique opportunity to determine the effect of climatic “whiplash” produced by the occurrence of extreme wet conditions following extreme dry conditions on the Microcystis bloom. We hypothesized that the period of record wet conditions in 2017 (1906-2018) would eliminate the Microcystis bloom for that year and perhaps revert the estuary phytoplankton community back to pre-bloom conditions due to extreme flushing, despite the increase in magnitude and spatial and temporal distribution of the Microcystis bloom during the 2014 extreme dry year. Field sampling was conducted at 2-week or 4-week intervals between July and November at stations throughout the Delta for both years and included a suite of physical, chemical and biological factors. Using PRIMER-e DISTLM, we determined that retention time in the upper estuary and water temperature were key environmental correlates with the Microcystis bloom amplitude and in regression models described 58-78% of the variation of the bloom surface biovolume or subsurface abundance. The period of record high streamflow in 2017 was not enough to eliminate the Microcystis bloom. However, the bloom was small in 2017, with a low abundance, late initiation, short duration, narrow distribution and low toxin production. Warm water temperature enabled the bloom to flower in late summer despite streamflow many times those measured previously. In addition, although conditions early in the summer of 2017 favored diatoms, the summer was characterized by an abundance of other non-Microcystis cyanobacteria. We conclude that once established, Microcystis is likely to be resistant to extreme wet conditions, as long as water temperature and other key water quality conditions are favorable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalQuaternary International
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2020


  • Climate
  • Drought
  • Microcystis
  • Streamflow
  • Temperature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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