Blue-green Algae: A Colourful Menace (By U. Khan)

If you have ever walked beside a lake or river in the summer, you might have noticed a blue-green color in the water or surrounding rocks. This gel like substance floating on top of the water is a group of microorganisms known as cyanobacteria or commonly referred to as blue-green algae. Blue-green algae are plant like organisms that grow in bodies of water, and require nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to survive. When these algae bloom, they use up the dissolved oxygen in the water and cause fish and other marine species to die. The can also produce toxins that contaminate water supplies and are deadly to marine life. The problem of algal blooms has been reoccurring in various lakes and rivers across Canada since the 1970s, and has yet to be solved.


Satellite view of the algal bloom in Lake Erie on July 28th 2015 Source: NASA

Lake Erie has become notorious for its algal blooms. In 2014, 400,000 people in Toledo were without tap water for two days due to algal blooms in Lake Erie. In 2015, Lake Erie witnessed another large algal bloom. These events have put a lot of attention on the problem of algal blooms in the region, and have put increased pressure on the government to deal with these problems. Earlier this year, the Ontario government released the Ontario Great Lakes Strategy 2016 Progress Report. This report is a review of the Ontario Great Lakes Strategy, a document published in 2012 which laid out Ontario’s efforts to preserve the great lakes. One major accomplishment of the government in the years since the creation of the Ontario Great Lakes Strategy is the passing of the Great Lakes Protection Act 2015. This act has created new monitoring programs for water quality, and allowed the government to set specific targets in improving the water quality in the great lakes. Another major sign of progress is the Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement signed in June 2015, with includes a bi-national goal to reduce phosphorous emissions into Lake Erie by 40% of 2008 levels by 2025. A key issue in targeting algal blooms in the great lakes is the fact that there are multiple jurisdictions in the area. Agricultural run-off from Michigan and Ohio contribute a large share to the total phosphorous levels. The fact that this agreement involves both Canada and the US is a great move. A study by the University of Michigan University has found that although the current goal is tough, it is achievable if large changes are made by a widespread number of actors. I believe that the content presented in the Progress Report is an indicator that the government has taken steps to deal with the problems of algal blooms, but the fact remains that most of the ideas are targets for the future and actual work needs to be done on the ground to achieve these targets.

Outside of the great lakes, algal blooms have also been an issue in Lake Winnipeg. The problems associated with algal blooms in this region are not only health related but also economic. Fishing and tourism provide many jobs for local businesses and are most affected by algal blooms. According to a 2013 study, the levels of phosphorous in the lake are above the recommended limit in both the northern basin as well as the southern basin of the lake. Projects funded by the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Fund have done well to reduce the amount of phosphorous seeping into Lake Winnipeg. As of March 2015,14800kg of phosphorous runoff per year has been stopped from entering the lake and its tributaries.

So what does it all mean?

Algal blooms result from access nutrients being present in a body of water. These access nutrients are most often the result of agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have negative effects on both local environments as well as commercial activities wherever they occur. The government needs to take a more proactive approach in dealing with these algal blooms. The recent blooms in both Lake Erie as well as Lake Winnipeg after record lows were achieved in the 1990s show that the government has not made it a priority to reduce algal blooms. The creation of new legislation is a great sign that the government is finally moving in the right direction on this issue. A collective effort between all the different ministries and aboriginal communities as well as local communities needs to occur for a healthy water system. There also needs to be cooperation between Canada and the US in this matter as water is a shared resource between our two countries.


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