An example of a blue-green algae bloom. If you suspect there is blue-green algae in your lake, contact your lake association and the municipality and do not drink or use the water. Pets should likewise not drink or swim in the water. /Photo submitted

Getting the word out on blue-green algae

County councillors to discuss how best to notify residents when blooms are suspected

By Jenn Watt

Haliburton County council will be discussing what can be done to better inform residents when blue-green algae blooms are suspected on area lakes, and how to improve education for everyone, following several confirmed cases of the potentially toxic organisms.

Three main players are officially involved when blue-green algae is found on a lake: the provincial Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks; the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit, and the municipality in which the bloom is detected. However, it seems that no single entity has been given a clear directive from the government to inform the general public about confirmed blooms.

There’s been no “formal or official notification from the [provincial] government, or discussion” about the municipality’s role in notifying the public, said Warden Liz Danielsen.

As blue-green algae can be toxic to humans and animals, Danielsen said municipal politicians have been concerned about how notification is handled and will be discussing the issue on Nov. 25.

“Hopefully we can all agree on the process that we’ll use or action that we’ll take. One of the things we’ve considered is doing a delegation during the ROMA conference to MOE …,” she said, referring to the Rural Ontario Municipal Association. “And do we see ourselves assuming responsibility [for notification] and I believe that we have a moral responsibility to let people know.”

On Nov. 9, blue-green algae blooms were confirmed on Wenona Lake in Dysart et al, Bob Lake in Minden Hills and Gooderham Lake in Highlands East, according to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, with toxicity results pending. In addition, Little Glamor Lake in Highlands East received a positive test on Oct. 22, but it was deemed not toxic.

As of Nov. 14, all blooms had completely dissipated and the risk to the public was low, said Richard Ovcharovich, manager of health protection for the health unit.

The process for identification and notification starts with a call to the ministry’s Spills Action Centre, where staff will assess and potentially test for the algae.

“The ministry will also notify the local health unit and affected municipalities in these situations,” said Ovcharovich via email. “Should the algae sample indicate toxin-producing BGA [blue-green algae], the ministry would also notify the resident/property owner who initially reported the issue.”

Blooms fall into three general categories that vary in severity, according to information from the health unit: In category 1, the water is cloudy, but translucent and no health effect is expected. In category 2, the water colour changes and the algae may be clustered or in flakes; it may look like “pea puree.” In category 3, the bloom is dense and may have a scum on top of the water or look like a paint spill. It can easily be swept by the wind.

“When blue-green algae fall into categories 2 or 3, people are advised not to swim or use water for drinking, cooking, rinsing foods or washing dishes,” Ovcharovich said. “Pets should also be prevented from entering or drinking the water.”

He said that most blooms are short-lived and disappear within days or weeks.

“While many forms of BGA are harmless, some can produce toxins that can be harmful to humans and animals. This means that any exposure to the water, be it drinking, swimming, bathing, cooking or washing, can lead to health problems (e.g. skin rash, eye irritation). The extent of how sick people can get depends on the type of BGA, size and category of the bloom, how close the bloom is from the water intake, concentration of the toxin in the water and how long they are exposed to the toxins.

“The simple advice is this: if you see or detect a large bloom of BGA within 50 metres of your water intake in a lake or local waterway, avoid using the water in all situations. Boiling water will not help either, as this process kills the algae resulting in the release of more toxins into the water.”

Paul MacInnes, chairman of the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners Associations, or CHA, has been concerned that word does not go out quickly enough to those who may use lake water when a bloom is suspected. There are barriers to receiving information for property owners who may not be part of a lake association, for example, and when notification is delayed while waiting for test results to be returned, people could inadvertently be exposed to the algae.

“If somebody’s at the lake and there’s a bloom, we need to let them know right away so that they stop bringing the water into their house and don’t let their pets out unsupervised because if a dog drinks blue-green algae, there’s nothing that can be done for that dog. That dog is going to die,” MacInnes said. When people drink the water, even those who are good health are likely to get sick, he said.

Blue-green algae is also known as cyanobacteria and occurs naturally in waterbodies around the world, however, there is evidence that its growth can be connected to increased phosphorus levels.

“They’ve now determined that there’s a whole lot of factors, but the single most important one is the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus in the lake,” MacInnes said. “And if that ratio gets too low, in other words, your phosphorus level gets too high, you’ll probably have a bloom.”

To limit the amount of phosphorus going into local lakes, over the last decade the CHA has been advocating for inspections of septic systems and renaturalization of shorelines. The organization’s website includes plentiful information on both the risks to lakes and remedies for common environmental issues.

Danielsen said part of the discussion among county councillors will be about how to disseminate the information needed, not only for those on lakes where blooms have been detected, but also to those who may be in a position to spot blue-green algae on their lake.

“Education is completely key,” she said. “And how we get that information out as well.”

Find more information on blue-green algae on the HKPR District Health Unit website: and from the CHA: