BC launches Algae Watch website for citizens to track blooms

A typical algal bloom in B.C.'s Quamichan Lake in 2016. Photo credit: British Columbia Government.

It was a rare occurrence in summer 2020 when British Columbia’s Shuswap Lake was covered in algal blooms. Now, the province has launched an online tracking system that allows users to submit their own algae data and images to a database so that citizen scientists can help paint a comprehensive picture of the problem.

To better understand where and when algae blooms happen around B.C., the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy has developed the educational Algae Watch website. The goal is to identify potentially harmful algae blooms and differentiate algae blooms from other natural phenomena, such as foam or pollen, which can sometimes look like blooms.

“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 Mike Sokal, a water quality limnologist for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, who added that he receives calls every year from people concerned about algae at their local lake.

Algae watchers can visit the new website, then use the online submission form to provide information on the location, extent and upload photos of the algae to help scientists determine future water-monitoring programs. They can also access links to provincial health authorities in the event of a blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) bloom.

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“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, said Sokal.

Sokal noted that while most blooms are harmless, some species have the potential to produce toxins that can be dangerous to people, pets or livestock. Most algae blooms form when there are increased nutrients, warmer temperatures, abundant light and stable wind conditions. Some human activities, such as agricultural runoff or improperly placed or poorly functioning septic systems can also make blooms more likely.

Last July, a rare phenomenon occurred when a large algal bloom filled most of the Salmon Arm end of Shuswap Lake, turning the pristine water into pea soup for several weeks.

“We’ve never seen anything quite like that. We’re still trying to fully understand the cause,” said Sokal. “The lake was visually unappealing, but health officials noted the water was safe for all recreational activities and public drinking water systems.”

Norm Zirnhelt, executive director of the B.C. Lake Stewardship Society, said that lakes are susceptible to impacts from all kinds of human land uses and activities, so it’s really important that there’s some vigilance from the public, too.

“If there are any changes that might be occurring in a lake, citizens can be an early detection or early warning mechanism,” said Zirnhelt.

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