This episode is all about scum. Stinky, toxic, and beach fouling scum, better known as blue-green algae. You’ve probably seen it in a pond or lake near you. It looks like someone changed their mind about painting their living room French Canadian pea soup green and dumped gallons of the ill-considered pigment into a nearby body of water.
But, it’s not paint, it an early form of life on earth called a cyanobacteria. If the conditions are right, sunlight, high temperatures and lots of nutrients, especially phosphorous, those bacteria can multiply like samollena on luke warm chicken. The billions of bacteria cause what’s called a bloom, but not one that smells very sweet. And, when the bacteria die they can release a toxin that can cause kidney failure.
In fact, in 2014 a blue green algae bloom in the west end of Lake Erie was so huge it caused the city of Toledo, Ohio to completely shut down its water system for fear of poisoning Toldeoans.
But, ironically, if it weren’t for cyanobacteria billions of years ago nobody would be alive in Toledo, or anywhere else in the world. That’s because we have Cyanobacteria to thank for the oxygen we breathe.
Cyanobacteria are biological survivors. Billions of years ago they were literally, the scum of the earth. They grew on land, rocks and in water - fresh and sea. They were early photosynthetic organisms. That means one of their waste products was oxygen, oxygen that until about three billion years ago was removed from the earth’s atmosphere as its surface iron rusted. But then, over the next 100’s of millions of years the rusting slowed down and oxygen started building up.
So, if you like breathing, thank a lake scum.
These days, we’re cyanobacteria’s best friends. Human activity has helped global warming, we’ve converted swamp and other wetlands into towns and cities or turned them to farmlands that dump phosphorus rich runoff into creeks and streams. We fertilize our lawns injudiciously and produce all manner of waste rich in the nutrients blue green algae eat like it was a free wedding buffet.
To learn more about blue green algae and what’s being done to combat it I spoke with Katie Stammler. Katie is water quality scientist and source water protection manager at the Essex Region Conservation Authority. The Windsor Essex area is a short hop across the shallow Lake Erie from Toledo. It’s home to the world-famous birder’s paradise Peele Island and is a flat, fertile terrain full of streams, creeks and wetlands that feed the Great Lake. Katie and her team have worked with Ducks Unlimited Canada to save and nurture those wetlands.
To date, DUC has completed more than 60 projects within the Lake Erie watershed and DUC’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research is implementing research, monitoring, and outreach components projects in the area.
Katie and her all-female crew, known as the Ladies in Wading, are the home grown heroes here. They also monitor water quality and educate the public about how not to succumb to the scum.