A young girl swims near an algae bloom, a dangerous organism that lurks in the waters of Lake Champlain.
The Lake Champlain Committee met with the public June 12 at the Essex Town Hall to discuss just this scenario, and brace for another summer of blue-green algae blooms in Lake Champlain.
“We want people to be able to understand the issues affecting lake health and to play an active role in protecting this water body,” said Lori Fisher, executive director of LCC. “We feel that an indicated, engaged citizen rate is really key.”
The presentation, facilitated by Staff Scientist Mike Winslow, lasted about an hour and provided a background on blue-green algae, guidance on how to differentiate it from other lake phenomena, and instructions for assessing water conditions, along with giving training to people who wanted to become LCC monitors.
“We do the training and the information sessions to ensure that the citizens, the people who live, work and visit this region are informed about some of the issues,” Fisher said.
LCC blue-green algae monitors provide weekly observations about water quality from designated locations around the lake from mid-June to February.
“It’s unlike anything you’d ever see in nature,” Winslow said. “But you won’t see it all the time with blooms.”
For their observations, they look for a bloom, a fuzzy green pin-head size ball, in the water, which often looks like thick pea soup with possible patches of turquoise blue as cells break down and release their pigments.
These blooms occur mostly in warm, shallow waters. Deep, cold water locations are less likely to support the blooms.
However, because of warmer water temperatures associated with climate change and extensive nutrient loading from storms and flooding, blooms appear in the broader area of the lake now.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about these organisms, but we do know that if they’re going to show up, it’s likely going to be during that hot, calm weather period,” Winslow said, adding later on that winds and waves may cause them to accumulate along shorelines or in protected areas, while cool and rainy days may disrupt them.
When a person sees a bloom, he or she should report it to the LCC and stay away from it because of health concerns. This means avoiding the bloom itself and the water in the area of the bloom.
Compounds produced by the algae can trigger skin irritations and gastrointestinal illnesses. Toxins in aerosols might cause itching and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Some species of algae produce toxins that affect the liver, while others affect the nervous system. Some toxins might even cause long-term damage. Boiling the water will not get rid of the toxins.
Winslow said researchers are starting to believe that BMAA (beta-Methylamino-L-alanine), a toxin produced in blue-green algae, might have a link to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
“The research, at this point, is really, really tenuous,” he said. “There’s not a lot of evidence about that, and the route of exposure is unclear.”
Children and dogs are considered to be most vulnerable when it comes to blue-green algae because they are less particular about what they eat or drink or where they swim. They’re smaller, so their bodies are more prone to illness. They’re also more likely to ingest water.
Dogs can receive a larger dose of toxins when they swim in a bloom and lick their fur. There have already been two reported deaths of dogs in 1999 and 2000 that were attributed to blue-green algae poisoning from Lake Champlain water. Even though there hasn’t been confirmed dog deaths of blue-green algae since 2007, Westport resident Gale Taliaferro, who attended the meeting, remains on edge.
“We have a dog, and I’ve always been very concerned about it because you here all of these horror stories about it,” she said.
“By training people to understand what’s happening to the lake and by educating people about these conditions and concerns, people are more aware, so I think they’re more likely to keep their pets out of the water,” Fisher said.
The LCC continues to try to prevent the production of blue-green algae in Lake Champlain, something they’ve been doing since 2003 by going to a different location of the lake once a week, collecting water samples and sending them to a lab in Burlington, getting the results a week after processing.
“This monitoring program focuses on those near shore areas where there’s the most contact and recreational use, and it gathers information, so we can ensure that the beaches are safe from swimming and other recreations,” Fisher said.
So far, LCC have championed bans on phosphorus in lawn fertilizer and laundry and dishwasher detergents, all while continuing to advocate for stringent water protection regulations and enforcement, storm water controls and upgrading and maintaining wastewater treatment plants.
As for what the people can do to rid of blue-green algae in the lake, they can use only phosphorus-free fertilizers, clean storm drains, prevent leaf and grass clippings from entering water ways, maintain or plant native trees or shrubs around shorelines and streams to reduce erosion and many more.
To be safe this summer, check out the web-based map of bloom locations on Lake Champlain and selected Vermont lakes maintained by the Vermont Department of Health at https://webmail.vdh.state.vt.us/vttracking/bluegreenalgaefp/.
“Lake Champlain is something that we all publicly own,” Fisher said. “We’re encouraging everybody who lives in this region to be informed about the lake and be engaged in its stewardship.”