Blue-green algae is proving to be a stubborn foe for Quebec

[Canada] The proliferation of blue-green algae in Quebec waters remains a significant problem nearly eight years after the provincial government adopted a plan to tackle it.

The Missisquoi Bay, which is part of Lake Champlain, is overrun with
blue-green algae during the hot summer months. Consumption or direct contact with blue-green algae, also known as Cyanobacteria, can be harmful for humans, pets and wildlife. It can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, skin irritations, respiratory problems and liver damage in humans.

“I would say that blue-green algae has been a serious concern for the last 10 years,” said Bill Howland, the director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

Bodies of water like Missisquoi Bay are particularly problematic. Blue-green algae is naturally present in most lakes, but under the right conditions, it can bloom and become toxic. Missisquoi Bay is shallow, warm and has high levels of phosphorous — the ideal conditions for clusters of toxic blue-green algae blooms when combined with climate change and blowing wind.

“There is no holding that algae back,” Howland said. “It is able to bloom pretty successfully.”

Lake Champlain

The blooms affect both the Quebec and American portions of Missisquoi Bay. Over the years, beaches and waters have been closed off several times because of the proliferation of blue-green algae.

In St-Armand, a municipality in the Montérégie, a $200,000 pilot project is underway to restore the shoreline in front of a wall along the Missisquoi Bay. The primary goal is to prevent flooding after Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River were ravaged by devastating floods in 2011.

If the Quebec government allows the project to expand by developing more shorelines and vegetation, it would lead to a reduction in the heat that fosters blue-green algae, said Johanne Bérubé, the director of the Organisme de bassin versant de la baie Missisquoi. (The Quebec environment ministry did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It is still very important to be able to protect this lake at the level of health, for sure,” Bérubé said.

Missisquoi Bay is the drinking water source for nearby Bedford and Philipsburg.

There is concern that even with a 10-year government action plan from Quebec, the regulation and signalling of blue-green algae often seem to be left to good faith.

The provincial government no longer officially monitors beaches for the presence of blue-green algae, according to the 2015 State of Lake report from the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Until 2012, the Quebec environment ministry visited practically each body of water flagged for blue-green algae, but in 2013, it narrowed down the criteria that merits a visit.

In Quebec, the responsibility of public health and the closing of beaches falls to individual municipalities and beach owners, said Bérubé. There is a lack of oversight to verify whether or not beach and camping ground owners are ensuring safe water conditions.

“So no one knows the quality of the waters in Missisquoi Bay, and they swim anyway,” Bérubé said.

Both the federal and provincial governments have online guidelines for residents to follow that include health warnings, precautions and alerting authorities if blue-green algae blooms are spotted.

Howland said that the spread of blue-green algae leaves the communities and governments with a lot of work to do, even with developed projects and guidelines.

“We don’t have the whole big picture, but we do know that it is a worldwide, growing problem,” Howland said.


Photo: Blue-green algae in Philipsburg, on Lake Champlain near the Vermont border, on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2015. JOHN KENNEY / MONTREAL GAZETTE

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