Floating algae mess takes the bloom off nice beach weekend
Posted on MLive on
June 18, 2007
A beautiful summer weekend at Lake Michigan beaches was slimed by an unusual algae bloom that had some people staying out of the unseasonably warm water.
But lake experts say the algae was a harmless -- if distasteful -- variety that will disappear with a good breeze or a rainstorm.
The algae, known as cladophora, has become increasing problematic around the Great Lakes, particularly along Lake Michigan's rocky shorelines in northern Michigan and in Wisconsin and in Lake Ontario, said Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon.
"This is the stuff they have a lot of problems with on the west side of the lake in Wisconsin," Steinman said. "The reason we start getting this in the summer is, one, it starts to respond to warm temperatures and, two, it likes nutrients."
Nutrients come from fertilizer used by homeowners and farms, but also may be coming from fecal material deposited by zebra and quagga mussels, Steinman said.
The mussels, foreign invaders who made their way into the lakes in ballast water, also make the water clearer, which provides more sunlight to help algae grow, he said.
"The stuff that's washing up right now will decompose," Steinman said. "It won't last very long."
Muskegon resident Rich Nelson said the south end of Pere Marquette Park's beach was "pretty bad" when he visited Sunday afternoon.
"It was almost like a thick film of algae that covered a pretty good section of that beach," Nelson said. "I don't remember seeing it like this before, and I'm down there quite a bit."
Nelson said he ended up taking a short swim closer to the breakwall at Pere Marquette, where the algae was less concentrated, but still pretty icky.
"I took a quick dip, but not for very long," he said. "I was warm and needed a quick cool-off ... It was refreshing, but not very clean."
The Annis Water Resources Institute will be studying the possibility that the algae can harbor pathogens like E. coli when it decomposes on beaches, Steinman said. That study will be conducted in the Traverse City area.
While most swimmers and beachgoers find the algae disgusting, scientists like Steinman see beauty in the stringy slimy plants.
"And keep in mind it's creating a lot of oxygen for us to breathe," Steinman said. "So it's not all a bad thing."
Rob Ribbens, an official with the Muskegon County Department of Public Works, said he hadn't received any word this morning about algae in the swimming areas of Pioneer Park or Meinert Park, the two county-owned parks on Lake Michigan.
But Ribbens said he was at Pere Marquette Park Sunday and noticed some algae on the water surface. He said he wasn't surprised or alarmed.
"There hasn't been much wave action to stir things up, and with warm weather you're going to get algae blooms," Ribbens said. "It's not that unusual."
In Ottawa County, there were sporadic reports of algae in Lake Michigan. Campers at Grand Haven State Park said algae at the beach was minimal Sunday and the area was crammed with swimmers.
"What algae there was pretty harmless," said Tom Hines, vacationing from Elkhart, Ind. "It did not stop the swimming."
But algae appeared to worsen to the south. John Scholtz, director of the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department, said the algae bloom was "pretty nasty" at the around Brucker Beach in Grand Haven Township.
"I experienced it myself and it was pretty unattractive," he said. "We went to Brucker Beach and walked down to the Rosy Mound Recreational Area. It was horrible, then we got to the middle of Rosy Mound and it ended. It was beautiful clean water."
Scholtz said he had not received reports on the county's three other Lake Michigan parks but would not be surprised if there were reports of an algae bloom. He said algae tends to be pushed to shore by currents and waves. The lake Sunday was calm so there was little wave action to break up algae concentrations.
Robert Veneklasen, director of Muskegon's Water Filtration Plant, said taste and odor tests have not turned anything characteristic of excess algae in Lake Michigan.
That's partly because the temperature of the water at the plant's raw water intake a mile from shore was 48.4 degrees -- too cold for a real algae bloom. Testing shifts from a weekly to a daily basis once the lake temperature hits 60 degrees, he said.
Aesthetically, the sight of algae at the shoreline could be objectionable to some beachgoers, although the low water temperature tends to discourage swimmers as well.
"It depends on where the wind's blowing, how much sun we've had and I'm sure there's some phosphorus in there someplace," said Robert Kuhn, city public works director.
"What we need is a good east wind and it'll all go away."