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Algal bloom or pollen? Salmon Arm city councillor wants more timely water testing

Councillor concerned recent algal bloom advisory was prompted by reported sighting, not data.
After the 2020 alagal bloom on Shuswap Lake, the Shuswap Watershed Council facilitated the development of a regional algae bloom response plan for the Shuswap watershed. (File photo)

A Salmon Arm councillor would like to see a more timely, data-driven response to potential algal blooms in Shuswap Lake.

At the July 11 council meeting, Coun. Debbie Cannon raised concerns around the algal bloom advisory issued for parts of Shuswap Lake by Interior Health (IH) on June 28 – and subsequently shared through the media. She was concerned the advisory went out prior to the Canada Day long weekend without testing or verification.

The health authority’s June 28 cautionary cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms advisory was for an active algal bloom on Shuswap Lake near Salmon Arm and Sunnybrae/Tappen.

On the same day, the Shuswap Watershed Council (SWC) shared a post on Facebook stating it was aware of the “emerging algal bloom.” In the same June 28 post, the SWC also shared a list of related precautions provided by IH. Among them, residents were asked to avoid contact with, and consumption of the affected water and recreational activities such as swimming were discouraged.

As of July 3, it still hadn’t been confirmed if there was an algal bloom on Shuswap Lake. City of Salmon Arm staff reported satellite imagery showed what could have been a bloom in the lake, but it was difficult to determine due to the amount of pollen on the lake. And because of the long weekend, IH wasn’t able to do water testing because none of the labs were open.

The first water testing results were reported on July 9. According to an update from the SWC, sites impacted by the “potential algal bloom” showed no sign of harmful cyanobacteria.

“Interior Health recommends that two consecutive samples be collected that show no sign of microcystin (the unsafe toxin that can be associated with Cyanobacteria) before a cautionary advisory can be lifted,” explained the SWC.

A member of the SWC, Cannon isn’t impressed with how all of this unfolded. She said she contacted the SWC and learned it began with visual reports of an algal bloom on Shuswap Lake (the public can submit an algal bloom observation via BC Algae Watch).

Read more: Testing shows no harmful bacteria in Shuswap Lake algal bloom

Read more: Testing for possible algae bloom in Shuswap Lake to begin after weekend

“That’s what they went by, a visual, not data,” Cannon told the Observer, adding she has lived on the lake for about 15 years and that this summer is the worst she has seen for pollen.

“When we had that algae bloom a couple of years ago, the one thing that was really evident in our bay, it was so murky, the water… you couldn’t see down to the bottom,” said Cannon. “And during this potential algae bloom, it was covered on the top with pollen… but it was crystal clear, you could see down to the bottom of the lake off the docks and stuff.”

Asked about the importance of having the advisory in place as a precaution, until testing could be completed, Cannon said knowing how bad the pollen was, “it should have been on the radar.”

After the 2020 algal bloom on Shuswap Lake, Cannon said the SWC set aside money for additional testing. She said she’ll be speaking more with the SWC, with a focus on getting a more timely system in place to address concerns with potential algal blooms. One option she suggested was having a private contractor conduct testing instead of relying on IH.

“If we need to do testing, when something like that comes out, do we have the ability to have a private contractor that could go out and do it right away…,” said Cannon. “We need to put almost like an emergency response in place.”

Council was supportive of Cannon working with the SWC to address concerns around the algal bloom response.

In 2021, the SWC announced it had facilitated development of a regional algae bloom response plan for the Shuswap watershed. The plan outlines regular water quality monitoring activities by local governments, First Nations, the Columbia Shuswap Invasive Species Society, the First Nations Health Authority, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and BC Parks. Depending on where and when an algae bloom may occur, any of these organizations would be able to collect water quality samples to help authorities understand the potential public health risk or ecological implications.

“We need a collaborative approach to monitoring algae blooms,” explained SWC program manager Erin Vieira in a media release. “Our current reality is that a single agency can’t do it on their own.”
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