It’s slimy, blue green and potentially toxic.
And it might be coming to a beach near you.
Blue-green algae, a type of cyanobacteria that thrives in warm, shallow water, is being discovered in bays along the shores of Lake Champlain, in places it’s never been seen before.
The algae blooms are more common in the northeastern section of the lake, but recently they have forced beach closures in both Westport and Port Henry.
The blooms are often a by-product of phosphorus entering the lake through fertilizers often used in farming and lawn care, various types of detergents, and sewage treatment.
Since phosphorus must have a means of getting to the lake, blooms are usually more robust after periods of flooding or heavy rain.
The Vermont-based Lake Champlain Committee has recruited and trained more than 100 citizen scientists to help New York and Vermont health agencies keep an eye on blue-green algae.
“It is important to understand that not all algae is blue-green algae, and that not all blue-green algae is toxic,” said Lori Fisher, executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee.
The committee has been active for about 50 years, but didn’t start monitoring the algae until 2004, after several dogs died after ingesting water containing the blue slime.
Since then, they’ve been training volunteers to identify blue-green algae, and, in 2011, began training people to observe water quality throughout the lake.
“Right now, state agencies don’t have the resources to gather as much information as we’d like,” Fisher said. “Our program adds to the knowledge of the lake, allowing the agencies to define trends and get a better assessment of water quality.”
And in a lake full of living organisms, knowledge is key to properly identifying potentially hazardous organisms.
Fisher said there are several things found in the lake that are often mistaken for blue-green algae, such as the tiny, flat leaves of duckweed, pollen, and algae that grows in balls or long strands.
Blue-green algae appears as a slime, and can have a blue-green sheen when washed up on shore. The presence of toxicity in the algae can only be determined by chemical analysis, which is expensive.
The Lake Champlain Committee stresses that the safest bet is to avoid areas where blooms have occurred and to always be aware of any local beach closings.
For more information, or to volunteer, visit lakechamplaincommittee.org