Press-Republican

June 18, 2013

Volunteer monitors needed for blue-green algae

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — A lake-wide search for potential blue-green algae blooms in Lake Champlain has resumed for the summer. 

The Lake Champlain Committee is looking for volunteers in all areas of the lake to monitor for the potentially dangerous algae along the New York and Vermont shorelines.

“Last year, we started the visual monitoring program, and for our first year of training, we had a whole slew of volunteers,” said Mike Winslow, staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee.

More than 100 Lake Champlain residents took part in the training, submitting 468 reports over a 10-week period. 

Reports were generated from between 39 and 52 sites each week, Winslow said.

“That was great when compared to previous years, when we were testing ... a maximum of 17 sites,” he added. “This (new program) has greatly expanded our coverage area.”

UNUSABLE DATA

In past years, volunteers would collect algae samples from the lake that would then be tested to determine whether the plants were indeed blue-green algae and if it included toxic ingredients.

“The cost of analyzing samples was very high and limited our ability to expand,” Winslow said. “Also, by the time results came back, the conditions (in the lake) may have changed, and we were getting unusable data.”

With last year’s switch, volunteers learned through training sessions how to identify blue-green algae blooms and then submitted their findings to the Lake Champlain Committee’s website for distribution to the public.

“Basically, if the water looks green and scummy, we’re recommending people stay out of the water,” Winslow said of the system implemented in 2012. 

“There is a risk of more false warnings (when samples are not tested), but that’s a risk worth taking, considering the expanded coverage we have.”

Volunteers identified algae blooms in six percent of their reports last year, Winslow noted.

A large bloom, however, had entered the lake in late June — prior to the monitoring schedule.

“Because of that, we’re starting two weeks earlier this year,” he said.

Monitors began submitting reports this week.

PUBLIC-ACCESS POINTS

The Lake Champlain Committee has already held several training sessions this spring, including a recent one in Essex, and 112 people have been trained thus far.

A Plattsburgh session is set for noon Thursday at the Crete Memorial Civic Center.

“Our monitors are spread pretty well throughout the lake,” Winslow said. “We’d like to concentrate on public-access points, beaches and boat launches. 

“After that, volunteers can cover their own local spots.”

Volunteers will monitor their chosen location once per week through Labor Day. Weekly monitoring generally takes between 15 and 30 minutes, with more time required during a suspected or actual bloom.

All volunteers are trained to assess and categorize water conditions and to differentiate between blue-green algae and other possible plant growth or water conditions.

CAN BE DANGEROUS

All reports of suspected blue-green algae blooms are collected by the Vermont Department of Health and placed on the department’s website. Data is also provided weekly to beach managers, public-health and environmental agencies and monitoring volunteers.

Blue-green algae are a natural part of the lake’s ecosystem, but under certain conditions the population explodes, producing thick scum on the water surface. At times, the blooms can contain toxins that can be dangerous to humans and pets if ingested.

It’s hard to predict whether algae blooms will be a problem over the course of the summer, Winslow said. 

“We’ve had a lot of rain, washing nutrients into the lake, but a lot of what is going to happen depends on the temperature.

“If it stays cools, we may be okay. If we get a stretch of hot weather, who knows?”

Email Jeff Meyers:jmeyers@pressrepublican.com

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UPCOMING TRAINING

The Lake Champlain Committee will host a blue-green algae training session for the Plattsburgh area at noon Thursday at the Crete Civic Center near the Plattsburgh City Beach.

To attend that one or find out about others, call (802) 658-1414 or email lcc@lakechamplaincommittee.org.

A map for identifying blue-green algae sites in Lake Champlain will be available later in the month at http://tinyurl.com/2e9srxy.