LCC Blue-Green Algae Monitoring Program

A blue-green algae monitor taking a sample at North Beach. Photo by Lori Fisher

LCC initiated a blue-green algae monitoring program on Lake Champlain in 2004. We annually train and enlist citizen volunteers to observe and report on water conditions. Our award-winning program provides critical data on where and when blooms are happening. The information we gather is used by public health officials to assess whether the water is safe for swimming. 

We are monitoring blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, because blooms sometimes produce toxins that are harmful to people and pets. Volunteers are trained to avoid personal exposure. The point of the monitoring program is to raise awareness of the issue, build a database of information on the bloom frequency and be sure that any potential health hazards are recognized and avoided by all people. Visit the Vermont Department of Health's website for more blue-green algae facts.

We revamped the program in 2012 to involve more people and cover more territory. Volunteer monitors commit to going out once per week from mid-June through Labor Day. Observations are submitted via an online form and used to update the Lake Champlain Blue-Green Algae Tracking map. Repeatedly visiting the same site helps us know of not just the presence of blooms, but also their absence. LCC provides training in detecting blooms and distinguishing them from other floating phenomena. If you are interested in being a volunteer monitor or supporting this program, please contact us at (802) 658-1414 or lcc@[remove this text]

Stay Informed

The Vermont Department of Health has the latest updates on Lake Champlain algae conditions. Helpful locations on their website include the Lake Champlain Blue-Green Algae Tracking map and Guidance for Vermont Communities on the health affects of blue-green algae. To help people distinguish blue-green algae from other floating phenomena in the lake, the Lake Champlain Committee has prepared a pamphlet recognizing blue-green algae in Lake Champlain (pdf).

Conditions Week Fifteen - 9/19 - 9/26/2014

LCC received about 40 blue-green algae monitoring reports this week. All but two report noted conditions free of blue-green algae blooms. One bloom report came from Button Bay on 9/24 where low alert conditions were observed, but it was clear the next day. The second came from Point Bay Marina on 9/25 which is not a regular monitoring site. The weekend weather forecast is for sunny skies, warm temperatures and calm winds. Blue-green algae are still present throughout Lake Champlain, and these conditions may encourage the formation of surface scums. Anyone active on the water or shoreline should watch for changing conditions.

Background on Blue-Green Algae

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) naturally occur in lakes and have existed on earth for millions of years. Under the right conditions they form large accumulations referred to as blooms. Some types produce toxins which release into the water when algae die and break down. Algae toxins can present a potential hazard to people and their pets. However, not all algae produce toxins, and even those species that can produce toxins do not do so in all instances. You cannot tell by looking at a bloom whether or not toxins are present. Specialized tests are required to tell whether a particular bloom actually contains toxins.

What do blue-green algae blooms look like?

As a bloom develops you may notice fuzzy green pinhead size balls in the water. The actual bloom often looks like thick pea soup. You may see patches of turquoise blue as cells break down and release their pigments.

What are the health concerns with blue-green algae?

Compounds produced by the algae can trigger skin irritations and gastro-intestinal illness. Toxins in aerosols may cause itching and irritation of eyes, nose, or throat. Some species produce toxins that affect the liver, while other species’ compounds affect the nervous system. Blue-green algae toxins are also suspected carcinogens. Children and dogs are most vulnerable for a number of reasons: they are less particular about what they eat or drink or where they swim; they are smaller; and they are more likely to ingest water. Dogs can receive a larger dose of toxins when they swim in a bloom then lick their fur. The deaths of two dogs during the summers of 1999 and 2000 were attributed to blue-green algae poisoning from Lake Champlain water.

Where are blooms most likely to occur on Lake Champlain?

Blue-green blooms tend to be more prevalent in warm, shallow waters such as Missisquoi Bay. Deep, cold water locations with fewer nutrients, such as the Main Lake are less likely to support blooms. However, with warmer water temperatures associated with climate change and extensive nutrient loading from frequent storms and flooding, blooms are appearing in a broader area of the lake. Blooms are likely to occur during extended periods of calm sunny days. Wind and waves may cause them to accumulate along shorelines or in protected areas. Shifts in wind direction can move a bloom from one location to another. Cool rainy weather may disrupt a bloom.

What should I do if I see a bloom?

  • Report it to the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC) using our online form.
  • Avoid contact with the water in the area of the bloom. Blooms are often localized and you can recreate elsewhere in the lake.
  • Keep children and pets out of the water.
  • Do not drink untreated lake water. If you suspect a bloom near your intake, don’t drink, cook or shower with the water. Boiling water doesn’t destroy the toxins.
  • See a doctor if someone gets ill after exposure to an algae bloom and report algae-related illnesses to the health department.

What can we do to prevent blue-green algae blooms?

Nuisance algae blooms result from too much nutrient loading to the lake; preventing them requires a long term strategy. LCC works diligently to address root causes and advance efforts to reduce nutrient loading. We have championed bans on phosphorus in lawn fertilizer and laundry and dishwasher detergents and continue to advocate for stringent water protection regulations and enforcement, stormwater controls, and upgrading and maintaining wastewater treatment plants. At a personal level there are a number of steps you can take as described in our Lake Protection Pledge. These include using only phosphorus-free fertilizers, cleaning storm drains, preventing leaves and grass clippings from entering waterways, maintaining or planting native trees and shrubs around shorelines and streams to reduce erosion, properly maintaining your septic system, and many more.

Financial Support & Collaborative Partners

LCC's blue-green algae monitoring program is generously funded by LCC members, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, PC Construction, the Lintilhac Foundation, the South Lake Champlain Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation, and The Hickok and Boardman Network of Companies. Please contact LCC if you'd like to contribute to this program. Collaborating partners include New York and Vermont public health, environmental and recreational agencies and the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

LCC's Past and Ongoing Projects

  • Raised awareness of increase in blue-green algae blooms and pushed for research and monitoring to understand causes. 
  • Established and run a volunteer monitoring program. We train monitors around the lake to recognize blue-green algae and provide tools for them to report blooms. Information gathered is shared with the Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health to inform the public through about conditions.
  • Produced a brochure to help distinguish blue-green algae from other algae species and other floating phenomena in Lake Champlain.
  • Conducts weekly surveys of public access points around the lake during the summer and report on algae bloom conditions.
  • Advances policies, programs and regulations to reduce nutrient loading to Lake Champlain.

Algae Monitoring Results Summary for 2013

Results from the Lake Champlain Committee's volunteer water monitoring program provide insight into the occurrence of blue-green algae blooms around Lake Champlain.

The 2013 algae monitoring season was the second in which volunteers reported observations of blue-green algae conditions without collecting water samples. The relatively new approach has allowed us to expand the number of sites monitored. We trained 205 potential monitors during 17 training sessions around the Lake Champlain Basin. We received 557 monitoring reports from 54 regularly visited sites during the twelve week monitoring season. Of these reports 97.7% indicated no algae blooms present, 2.0% saw some algae, and 0.4% saw significant algae blooms. We received an additional 93 supplemental reports. These reports were either, 1) duplicate reports from the same site within a week, 2) follow-up reports tracking an algae bloom, 3) reports from sites with fewer than six observations over the course of the summer, or 4) reports of algae-blooms outside regularly observed locations.  Supplemental reports were biased toward bloom conditions and so 29% indicated the presence of blue-green algae.

The 2013 summer program has again shown that volunteer monitors can provide valuable information about the presence of blue-green algae blooms for public health officials. Data collected by the volunteers were uploaded onto the Department of Health’s on-line map for tracking blooms.  Without LCC’s volunteer blue-green algae monitoring program the status and prevalence of blue-green algae on the lake would be considerably less clear.

2013 Algae Monitor Reports June 15-Sept. 13

Lake Section #Sites #Reports No BGA Reported Low BGA Reported High BGA Reported
South of Crown Pt. 3 35 34 1 0
South Main Lake (VT) 7 61 59 1 1
Burlington Area 10 109 109 0 0
Inland Sea and Islands 11 104 100 4 0
St. Albans Bay 4 43 40 2 1
Missisquoi Bay 4 47 44 3 0
Mallets Bay 1 11 11 0 0
New York - Essex Co. 6 67 67 0 0
New York - Clinton Co. 8 80 80 0 0