Life On The Beach: Algae Be Gone

The down low on one of Madison Lakes' biggest problems

Jul 21, 2011

City of Madison, Stormwater Utility Newsletter

Over the past few years Madison’s lakes become more and more threatened by a natural predator: blue-green algae. Cyanobacteria, a name that makes the stuff sound pretty scary, is a form of bacteria that can cause serious health problems if touched or ingested. The city and its public health department try to warn patrons about blooms and restrict beach access, but what can be done for the long-term fix?

In order to understand why this pretty colored scum is a problem, you have to know about the dangers. If a swimmer comes into physical contact with an algae bloom, skin rashes and discomfort may occur. However, according to the Wisconsin DNR, if the algae is swallowed (and chances are when you’re swimming you’ll get some water in your mouth), a person may suffer poison-like symptoms—serious stomach cramps, vomiting, fever, muscle weakness and difficulty breathing are only a few on the list. It should be noted that it is also possible to inhale blue-green algae while you’re out ON the water, boating, fishing, canoeing, etc.

And people aren’t the only ones at risk. Pets and livestock can also feel the effects of blue-green algae intake, suffering symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and seizures. The worst cases can also lead to death of the animal.

Aside from avoiding contact with water containing blue-green algae, what else can the average person do? Some suggestions include using phosphorous-free fertilizer, minimizing fertilizer use, avoiding activities that lead to erosion and fixing any leaks in septic systems. As far as the city goes, they are testing new systems to help eliminate algae in certain areas.

Last summer, the city, UW, Wisconsin DNR and Dane County came together to install two algae booms surrounding Bernie’s Beach (my personal favorite place to guard), and BB Clarke Beach. These structures surround the swimming area and help keep out blue-green algae and loose weeds via a two-foot hanging net. Because of lower algae levels last year, testing is still going on to decide whether or not the booms are worth it. More booms will be installed at Brittingham Beach to continue gathering research.

While the process isn’t a quick one, we all need to start taking action to keep our lakes open and safe. This summer make sure to do what you can, and be on the look out for anything you might expect to be unsafe. Blooms can pop up overnight so check our Beach Report daily to see if your swim spot is safe and open.

For further information about blue-green algae, please visit the Wisconsin DNR website


See more Life On The Beach posts here, and read more about Madison's lakes on our Crazy4Lakes page.

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