Missisquoi Bay struggles to deal with decades-old cyanobacteria contamination

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WATCH: Residents in communities on the northern shore of Lake Champlain are fed up, saying blue-green algae has been disrupting life in the area for decades – Sep 1, 2021

Residents of Philipsburg on Missisquoi Bay south of Montreal say things are changing in the water.

Some like Robert Galbraith are finding dead mussels on beaches which, according to Galbraith, is unusual.

“When there’s too much of a high level of toxins in the water, they die like everything else,” he told Global News.

He blames cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.

“We have major summer blooms of blue-green algae cyanobacteria,” he said, “which is a health threat to the environment and public health.”

Read more: Mysterious mass fish die-off observed in Missisquoi Bay

He and others who live in the area believe the situation is getting worse, pointing to conditions on Aug. 21 which they say were unlike anything they’d ever seen.

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“The whole lake looked like it was covered in a sheet of white ice,” he said.

Marie-Hélène Guillemin-Batchelor, another resident, routinely collects water samples from the bay for testing. She echoed Galbraith’s concern.

“It’s worse,” she emphasized. “It’s getting worse and worse.”

Cyanobacteria has been a summer problem in Missisquoi Bay for decades. The area sits in the northeastern corner of Lake Champlain which straddles the Canada-United States border.

Quebec and Vermont share the bay and much of the cyanobacteria problem occurs in Philipsburg on the eastern side and Venise-en-Québec on the west.

“It’s a problem because we don’t know what to do,” Guillemin-Batchelor said.

Read more: Blue-green algae contamination may be better managed south of the border

Experts say the problem comes in large part from agriculture which delivers large quantities of phosphorus to the lake.

“We use it as a fertilizer in the fields, we use it on the lawns,” noted Pierre Leduc, chair of the Missisquoi Bay Watershed Organization, a community group dedicated to finding answers to the contamination issue. Leduc grew up in Venise-en-Québec.

A joint Canada-U.S. commission in 2020 issued recommendations to both federal governments after spending four years studying “nutrient loading and impacts in lakes Champlain and Memphremagog.

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One recommendation is to change agricultural procedures.

“To help the farmers move that forward with technical and financial help,” Leduc said, adding that some farmers are already changing.

Other recommendations, some of which have a 10-year timeline, include having federal governments on both sides of the border come up with an action plan to fix the algae problem, and to inform the public on what’s being done.

Read more: ‘A very small amount can kill’: A warning for pet owners about algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg

According to experts, neither the Canadian nor the American government has committed to any of the recommendations.

Global News contacted Environment and Climate Change Canada for comments about the joint commission’s but they have not yet responded.

Earlier this year Quebec and Vermont renewed the Missisquoi Bay Agreement which notes that “the bay’s water quality has deteriorated in recent decades, and it experiences troublesome cyanobacteria blooms nearly every summer.” It states that “Vermont will have 60% of the responsibility for reducing phosphorus loads to the Bay, and Québec will assume 40% of the responsibility.”

According to Eric Howe, director of the Vermont-based Lake Champlain Basin Program, the agreement seeks “to maintain the goal of achieving the 25 micrograms per litre of phosphorous in the water column of Missisquoi Bay.”

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He added that the count is about 40 micrograms per litre now.

Read more: Province launches website to help identify algae blooms in B.C. lakes

Both Howe and Leduc agree that the phosphorous levels in the bay must drop and that there are several efforts underway to help make sure that happens.

Leduc said the situation is improving and that the algae blooms, though the intensity varies from year to year depending on weather, are happening later in the summer.

Still, he cautioned that fixing the problem won’t happen overnight and wants stronger enforcement of water quality and land use regulations.

“It took about 50 years to get to where we are,” he explained. “The degradation was slow but it was long-lasting. Now it’s going to take about the same time to recover.”


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