Blue-green algae takes over many Alberta lakes as hot weather returns this week: ‘It smells like sewage’

Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich

With another hot week in store for much of Alberta, many people are getting out to try to soak up and enjoy the remaining days of summer.

With that, many will flock to nearby lakes to spend time at the beach. But several of Alberta’s lakes have been taken over by blue-green algae this summer, including Garner Lake where Harold Kinasewich calls home.

Kinasewich has had a family property on Sunrise Beach since the 1950s. Now semi-retired, he lives at the lake and it’s a place where he spends a lot of quality time with his kids and grandkids.

“It has been nice in the past. But I’ve got to say, this year has been an exception to that rule, that’s for sure,” he said. “This is the worst I have ever seen, by far.”

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Kinasewich said that typically, blue-green algae forms on the lake for a couple of weeks in late August. This year, an advisory was issued for the lake on June 27.

“It came as quite a shock and the water was very nasty right from the get-go, right from June,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was blue-green, obviously, but it was really quite a thick mat and it stretched out for more than just a couple of feet from the shoreline. It stretched out probably 40-some feet out.

“From then on, the smell has been just so intense that you don’t even want to wander out onto the dock. … It smells like sewage. It smells septic. It’s got a terrible reek to it.”

Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich

Because of that, Kinasewich hasn’t been fishing from the lake this year and he doesn’t let his grandchildren swim in the water.

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“It’s the whole lake,” he explained.

“We have a lot of fun here and this year, they hardly want to come out. And I don’t blame them. I won’t let them go swimming, so what do we want to go to the lake for? You can’t go swimming, so might as well go to the pools in the city.”

Kinasewich is quite concerned about the quality of the water and has been in touch with the CAOs of both Smoky Lake County and St. Paul County, in hopes of connecting with someone from Alberta Environment to try to figure out why the quality of the water has gone downhill so quickly.

“This is important to all of us, so I certainly don’t mind spending some time trying to get to the bottom of it. I know that if we don’t do something about it, nothing’s going to get done,” he said.

“This is our heirloom out here. Our legacy is out here, and I want it for our grandkids and their grandkids.”

In a statement, Alberta Environment and Parks said it has not received a request to look into the blue-green algae situation at Garner Lake.

“Generally speaking, algal blooms and cyanobacteria (often referred to as ‘blue green algae’) occur naturally in many Alberta lakes, including Garner Lake,” the department said.

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“With the exception of lakes in the foothills and mountain regions, Alberta’s lakes reside in nutrient-rich glacial till basins are relatively shallow and well-mixed, and many have long residence (renewal) times due to limited flushing of the waterbody. We continue to work with Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services to better understand what these natural factors, combined with a prolonged period of hot temperatures, mean for lake conditions in Alberta.”

‘Perfect storm’ has led to algae growth: professor

There are currently dozens of blue-green algae advisories in place for lakes in Alberta.

“This year it is quite pronounced compared to some of the more recent years that we’ve had,” said Rolf Vinebrooke, a professor of aquatic ecology at the University of Alberta.

“To date, approximately about 36 lakes have had health advisories posted on their beaches and shorelines, which is definitely a notable number for this year,” Vinebrooke explained.

Algae at Sylvan Lake, Alta., Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. There is no health advisory for Sylvan Lake. Global News

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) is naturally occurring, and often becomes visible when weather conditions are calm. It can be blue-green, greenish-brown, brown or pinkish-red. It looks like scum, grass clippings, fuzz or globs on the surface of the water. It often smells musty or grassy.

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People should avoid all contact with blue-green algae, not swim where algae is present, and be sure to wash with tap water as soon as possible if contact does occur.

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The cause of blue-green algae is a complex situation, according to Vinebrooke.

“A lot of it has to do with climate. If you remember back to earlier in the year, we had a lot of pronounced rain events. So that carried a lot of nutrients into the nearby lakes from the surrounding landscape. And blue-green algae, just like plants — which they’re closely related to — if you give them nutrients they are going to grow better. And then more recently, this heat wave we’ve had,” he said.

“Most blue-green algae are very, very well adapted to and thrive at higher temperatures, compared to other types of algae. So that’s helping them flourish as well.

An interesting note, according to Vinebrooke, is that some of Alberta’s “premier high-usage lakes” have not yet had advisories issued for blue-green algae. He pointed to Pigeon Lake, where blue-green algae has been a problem for years. This year, though, he said the water quality has been very good and blue-green algae hasn’t really been a problem.

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“This is one of these cases where it’s not a clear answer as to what’s actually causing it. Some lakes this year are having a really terrible time, like Garner (Lake), and other lakes that have had problems in the past, like Pigeon Lake, seem to be doing quite well this year.”

Research into frequency of blue-green algae underway

Vinebrooke said he recently received funding from Alberta Health and Alberta Environment and Parks to start looking at whether there has been an overall increase in the frequency of harmful elder blooms in the province over the last few decades.

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He said researchers will do a trend analysis looking at the last 20 years to see if statistically, there has been an increase or not. So far, they don’t have a clear picture of the situation.

“The jury’s still out on whether or not people are just more sensitive to them today because we’re more environmentally aware,” Vinebrooke said.

“So we report them more often now than we have perhaps in the past because we’re just more aware of the issue, or has it actually really occurred? That still has to be answered.”

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Hot weather on tap for Alberta this week

It’s expected to be another hot week in much of Alberta. Heat warnings are in place for Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and the surrounding regions.

Temperatures in Edmonton are forecast to reach highs of 31 C both Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Global Edmonton weather specialist Mike Sobel. Thursday will see a high of 23 C, with warmer temperatures expected for the long weekend.

In Calgary, daily highs are expected to reach 31 C on Tuesday and 31 C on Wednesday, according to Global Calgary chief meteorologist Tiffany Lizée. Warm weather with daily highs in the high-20s to 30 C is also expected through the long weekend in the Calgary region.

Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich
Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich
Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich
Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich
Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich
Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., July 16, 2022. Courtesy, Harold Kinasewich
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Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., Aug. 26, 2022. Courtesy, Lori Brown
Blue-green algae at Garner Lake, Alta., Aug. 26, 2022. Courtesy, Lori Brown

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