Algae blooms a growing problem
Don't touch the water, cottage country warned
Canada National Post
VENISE-EN-QUEBEC, Que. - The campground was immaculate
and the beach freshly raked, but on a perfect summer morning
this week, Camping Kirkland was practically deserted.
The shimmering waters of Missisquoi Bay, owner Christa
Baertschi advised potential campers, were toxic.
With its name borrowed from the Italian city of canals
and romance, Venise-en-Québec used to be a destination
of choice for Quebec vacationers. But the appearance in
recent years of toxin-producing algae in the bay at the
northern end of Lake Champlain -- as well as the related
deaths of several dogs, and warnings to avoid ''all direct
contact'' with the water -- has scared away all but the
bravest swimmers. As government-ordered beach closings
come earlier every summer, a town built on tourism is
wondering how long it can survive.
''It's a natural resource, the lake,'' Ms. Baertschi
said. ''It should be here for generations to come. If
they don't find a solution soon, the lake is going to
end up being a swamp.''
Scientists say the blue-green algae choking Missisquoi
Bay are turning up increasingly in lakes across North
Environment Canada has identified the algae as ''a growing
threat to water quality in Canada and around the world.''
Hamilton Harbour and Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario face
serious algae problems, as does Lake Winnipeg.
The algae bloom when warm surface temperatures and calm
conditions combine with an abundance of phosphorus in
the water from fertilizer or human waste. The organisms
produce toxins that can cause serious health effects in
humans and can kill dogs. The Vermont Department of Health
reported two dogs died last year after swallowing algae,
one on the Canadian side of Missisquoi Bay and one on
the American side. That followed several algae-related
dog deaths in Lake Champlain in 1999 and 2000.
Gregory Boyer, a biochemist at the State University of
New York in Syracuse who is studying the algae problem
in Lake Champlain, said in one case, a Labrador retriever
was dead within an hour of being exposed to the algae.
He said the situation in the lake, which is surrounded
by intensive farming, appears to be worsening.
Richard St-Onge, who owns a cottage in Venise-en-Québec,
has witnessed the deterioration first-hand as he crosses
the bay on his windsurfer. He continues to take to the
water, reasoning that on windy days, the waves will break
up the algae, but he says he is one of a dwindling number
surfing the bay.
''We have to find a solution. We've been aware that something's
wrong for 10 years, but there has been no progress,''
he said. ''I think that if Paul Martin had a property
on the shores of Lake Champlain, they would have moved
a lot more quickly.''
Quebec is working with Vermont and New York state, which
also borders Lake Champlain, to find ways of reducing
the pollution flowing into the lake. An agreement signed
last year between Quebec and Vermont specified 60% of
the phosphorus entering the bay is from Vermont sources
and 40% is from Quebec. It calls for a gradual reduction
of that input, largely through controls in farming practices
and sewage treatment, but the full impact will not be
felt until 2016.
Michel Jobin, an aide to Thomas Mulcair, Quebec's Environment
Minister, said the new Liberal government intends to make
Missisquoi Bay a priority. But he said there are no immediate
solutions. ''It is a problem that has persisted for many
years, and it will not be solved in a few weeks,'' he
Dr. Boyer's forecast was also gloomy. He said the best
way to reduce the risk to humans in the short term is
to improve the identification of algae blooms so they
can be avoided.
''The toxic species is established, and it's likely going
to be here for a long time,'' he said. ''It's like zebra
mussels or loosestrife or dandelions: Once it's established,
it's hard to get rid of.''
It is not exactly good for business, but sharing these
sobering facts is part of operating a beach in Venise-en-Québec
these days. As required by the public-health authorities
who closed the beach on July 25, Ms. Baertschi has staff
posted at the entrance to distribute pamphlets about the
''Avoid all direct contact with the water, e.g., swimming
and aquatic activities (note that a wet suit will not
protect the skin),'' the document advises. ''Do not drink
the water and do not use it to prepare or cook food (boiling
the water will not eliminate the toxins) .... Avoid consuming
fish or other aquatic species taken from the affected
area. Do not let animals drink water or bathe in it.''
How does one know if he has been exposed? ''Stomach ache,
diarrhea, vomiting, nausea,'' are some of the symptoms.
Also possible are irritation of the skin, nose, throat
and eyes, and -- ''more rarely'' -- liver damage and nervous
For Ms. Baertschi and her husband, René, it is
a heart-breaking message to deliver. They fell in love
with Venise-en-Québec and moved from Switzerland
15 years ago to run the campground. ''We were looking
for a place where we could bring up our kids in a nice
environment,'' she said. ''Look, it's a beautiful spot,
but all our work is going down the drain.''
This is the third straight summer provincial authorities
have closed the beaches after detecting high levels of
microcystin, the toxin produced by the algae. In the past,
Venise-en-Québec businesspeople were reluctant
to make a fuss, fearful they would only further tarnish
their town's name by drawing attention to the pollution.
But now they are starting to realize staying silent is
Michel Vanier, a real-estate developer building homes
in Venise-en-Québec, is in the early stages of
organizing a class-action suit against the province on
behalf of businesspeople and landowners who have seen
the value of their properties plummet.
''It's not really good publicity, but it has to come
out so there will be pressure on the politicians to do
something,'' he said.
Murray Charlton, an Environment Canada research scientist
in Hamilton, said Canadians should not be complacent about
the quality of their water. He began noticing the blue-green
algae blooms re-appearing in Hamilton Harbour in 1999
after more than a decade's absence.
''I feel, personally, that people should be concerned
about this and we should be making plans about how to
deal with this instead of just saying, let's get used
to it,'' he said. ''There are more and more people living
around these bodies of water and we can't keep doing the
same things we did 40 years ago.''
Robert Galbraith, a photojournalist whose family owns
a cottage in Philipsburg on Missisquoi Bay, has been trying
to draw attention to the algae problem for years.
A video he shot in 1996 shows a neighbourhood dog cavorting
through a thick slick of algae near the shore. He has
posted handmade signs along the shore with a skull-and-crossbones
warning that the lake is poisonous, but so far, he said,
he has seen no results.
So on Sunday, he began a hunger strike.
''I don't want my children to be the first victims,''
he said. ''I'm going to fall before they do. If I have
to be the canary in the coal mine, I will.''