The provincial ministry of environment is enlisting the public to support a lake algae monitoring initiative, prompted in part by the 2020 algal bloom on Shuswap Lake.
Last July, a large algal bloom filled most of the Salmon Arm end of the lake and lasted throughout the summer.
“We’ve never seen anything quite like that,” said Mike Sokal, a water quality limnologist for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. “We’re still trying to fully understand the cause. The lake was visually unappealing, but health officials noted the water was safe for all recreational activities and public drinking water systems.”
Following the 2020 bloom, the ministry developed a new educational Algae Watch website, designed to help people contribute information about potentially harmful algal blooms, and differentiate algal blooms from other natural phenomena in B.C.’s lakes.
Ranging in size from microscopic single cells to large seaweeds, algae are a natural part of all aquatic ecosystems, said Sokal, providing food for fish and supplying much of the oxygen we breathe. However, prolific growth can cause a dense mass or bloom to form.
According to the province, most algal blooms form when there are increased nutrients, warmer temperatures, abundant light and stable wind conditions. Some human activities, such as agricultural run-off or improperly placed or poorly functioning septic systems, can also make blooms more likely.
Most of the blooms are harmless, according to Sokal, but some species have the potential to produce harmful toxins. During the 2020 bloom, local officials monitored for cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which which can produce chemicals that are poisonous if swallowed by people, pets or livestock.
Sokal said the Algae Watch website invites the public to use the online submission form to provide information on the location, extent and photos of an algal bloom, and access links to provincial health authorities in the event of a blue-green bloom.
Data collected will help scientists like Sokal determine future water-monitoring programs.
“The website can help us track changes over time and identify areas of the province that are getting more algae blooms. We can then start investigating what’s causing these changes,” said Sokal.
“It’s really encouraging to see people interested in what’s happening at their lake. Some of those concerned citizens become champions for the lake and start local sampling programs.”
Anyone with immediate concerns related to drinking and/or recreational water use is asked to contact their local health authority.