Understanding Algae in our Muskoka Lakes

Lake Vernon - Karen ActonHave you noticed there is a lot more talk about algae blooms on our lovely Muskoka Lakes even though the conditions this season have not been conducive to the development of blooms! Over the past 10 years throughout Muskoka there has been an increase in the number of algae blooms reported.

Something I have learned and think you may want to know is that the relationship between algae, algal blooms and water quality is complicated but that the presence of algae in your lake does not necessarily indicate reduced water quality.

What are Algae?

Algae are tiny floating organisms (phytoplankton) or attached (periphyton) plants found in lakes and rivers. They contain chlorophyll and carry out photosynthesis.

Algae are the base component of the aquatic food chain and are a critical component of a healthy aquatic environment. There are many different types of algae found in Muskoka that include diatoms, green algae, pigmented flagellates, and blue-green algae.

Like all life forms algae require a food source and they require sunlight for growth.  It is the amount of nutrients available (especially phosphorus and nitrogen) that will limit the amount of growth of algae in a lake.

There are several other factors that affect the growth of algae in our lakes. Environmental factors that determine the type and number of algae in your lake are:

  • Water temperature;
  • The physical removal of algae as it is flushed downstream;
  • Grazing on the algal populations by microscopic organisms and fish;
  • Parasitism by bacteria and fungi; and
  • Competition from aquatic plants for nutrients and sunlight.

 Phosphorus and Algae

Phosphorus in reasonable amounts is required to help drive aquatic systems. It is a valuable nutrient that promotes plant growth and forms the base of food chains in ponds, streams, lakes and rivers.

Unfortunately, when lakes become nutrient rich it can lead to algae blooms and eutrophication. Algal overgrowth can destroy the appearance of water, make water taste unpleasant and smell, reduce clarity, and change the colour of the lake to a vivid green, brown or yellow.

Natural sources of phosphorus include wetlands and the atmosphere, while man-made sources include:

  • Urban and agricultural runoff
  • Sewage discharges and septic tank seepage
  • Eroded streambanks
  • Fertilizer runoff and detergent wastes.

Nothing can or perhaps even should be done to reduce the nutrients entering your lake from natural sources however reducing the nutrients from man-made sources should be minimized and can hopefully prevent excessive algae growth in the future.

What are Algal Blooms

When there is excessive growth of one or more species of algae, it is called a “bloom”.  Algal blooms can happen at any time of the year but are most common in summer.  Algal blooms usually occur after calm, hot weather when the water gets warm. Blooms are caused by several factors but an increase in nutrients and the right weather conditions often result in the formation of a bloom; just as fertilizing a lawn makes the grass grow faster. In other instances, something may change in the environment to favour one species of algae over another, leading to a population explosion.

One of the most serious consequences of an algae bloom occurs when the bloom dies off. As algae die, they sink to the bottom of the lake and decompose, depleting oxygen levels. The depletion of oxygen in the bottom layer of the lake can free phosphorus trapped in the sediments and reduce the amount of oxygen available for the survival of other aquatic organisms, including fish.

Algal Blooms can occur sporadically in lakes that don’t have elevated levels of nutrients. Therefore, increased levels of phosphorus cannot be relied on as the sole rationale for sporadic or individual algal blooms, and the presence of an algae bloom does NOT necessarily indicate nutrient enrichment.

Blue-green Algae

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are photosynthesizing bacteria, not plants. Blue-green algae are commonly found in lakes and ponds. Some types of blue-green algae produce toxins while others do not.

The only way to determine if a sample of blue-green algae contains species capable of producing toxins is to analyze the sample in the lab.

Blue-green algae blooms are likely to occur during sunny, calm weather when high concentrations of nutrients are present in water. Fresh blooms may smell like fresh-cut grass, while older blooms may smell like garbage. When the algae die and decompose, toxins may be released in those species that produce them. Symptoms from drinking water contaminated with blue-green algae include headaches, fever, dizziness, diarrhea, abdominal pain or stomach cramps, sore throat, nausea and/or vomiting.

Blue-green algae have several characteristics that enable them to out-compete other species of algae, including:

  • The ability to adjust their buoyancy so they can float or sink depending on light conditions and nutrient supply
  • Using nitrogen fixation to maintain high rates of growth when other forms of nitrogen are depleted
  • They are less favoured by predators than green algae because they produce chemicals that make them ‘taste bad’.

 

So here is the bottom line as a cottage owner or renter. Algae are a normal part of the ecology of aquatic life. They usually pose no risk to us. They need specific conditions to “bloom” some of which we can help mitigate by being aware of our phosphate loading from our septic system. This can be done by selecting our detergents and fertilizers with care.  Most algae are not harmful to humans but blue-green algae can cause sickness and in extreme cases serious illness. Water that has a blue-green bloom should be avoided.

I AM NOT AN EXPERT ON ALGAE but I do feel that good stewardship of our lakes is vital and the Muskoka Watershed Council and Muskoka Water Web have great resources to assist us in doing that.

Algal bloom sightings can be reported to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Changes Spills Action Centre at 1-800-268-6060.

It’s Time to Change Your Clocks and Check Your Smoke Detectors Muskoka!

Muskoka Real EstateThis month we “Spring Forward” and that signals that it is also time to check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. In accordance with the province of Ontario and the Ontario Fire Marshal office as well as standards set by the NFPA (National Fire Prevention Association) for fire prevention residential dwellings must have smoke detection devices installed and in good working order.

This rule can be found in subsection 6.3.3 of fire code, but far more relevant, it should be found in our hearts. A desire to protect our family and even the Muskoka real estate we have worked so hard to own should be paramount to each of us. Sadly, we all know what it’s like to hear that screeching siren of our smoke detectors when we burn toast or even worse something in the oven! Then, there is the annoying chirp of the cottage smoke detector with the battery out of juice, which we have been meaning to replace. Going to the extreme of disconnecting, or removing the batteries and then even failing to replace them when needed, can be potentially fatal. When we are tempted to disable an alarm for temporary relief of an annoying sound, we do not intend to get caught up in our busy lives and to forget to re-place or re-connect the detector. But if the time comes that there is a real fire emergency, seconds count and a functional smoke detector truly can save the lives of your family and yourself.

It is so important to not become complacent as Muskoka property owners or in fact property owners anywhere! Just having a detector in your home is not enough.  You need to makes sure they are operational. Most new homes have hard wired smoke alarms and by regularly checking the “power on” light to ensure it is operating is usually sufficient. In battery operated smoke detection units, changing the batteries annually and pressing the test function button monthly is the recommended method by fire safety professionals. With a battery operated unit, an intermittent beep can be heard for about 7 days prior to a complete failure. This is designed to let you know the batteries are wearing out and need to be replaced immediately. I know we tend to think of it as an annoyance but to ensure optimal operation of the device and that it will be working in the horrid event you need it, change the batteries when you hear the signal.

In the case of rental properties, the property owner or landlord is considered to be the owner and therefore is responsible for installation and maintenance of smoke detectors and alarms. While the occupant of the residence, can be held responsible for disabling or making the alarm device inoperable it is the duty of the landlord/owner to inspect these units regularly and give the tenant notice to not disable them if they have been found to have done so. Failure to maintain and keep detectors in working order is a violation of fire code and is punishable by fine, imprisonment or both.

Please take care of your family and your beautiful Muskoka property, make sure your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are all operational today!

Holiday Fire Safety Tips for Your Bracebridge Home

Holiday Fire Safety - Karen Acton Royal LePage Lakes of MuskokaWith the holidays just around the corner our homes will become the hub of family celebrations and activities. Add to this, the fact that many of us decorate our homes to make things festive and joyful and you have a recipe for great fun and potential disaster.

Sadly there is a 12% increase in residential fires in December most likely caused by the increased levels of activity in our homes around the holidays. We cook more, entertain more, need more heat and hydro and have more things around our homes that are combustible like Christmas trees covered in tinsel!

Here are some great tips to protect your family, home and peace of mind:

  • First and foremost make sure you have working smoke detectors on every level of your home.  Test them as you put up your decorations to make sure they are fully operational, especially if they are battery dependent and not wired into the main hydro system.
  • Do not overload outlets during the holiday season. If you need more outlets, buy a good power bar not a wobbly outlet splitter.
  • Inspect all cords before using. Look for loose connections or frayed or exposed wire especially on tree lights as they spend a whole year coiled up between uses.
  • Insert plugs fully into outlets. Poor contact may cause overheating or shock.
  • To avoid possible overheating, do not coil or bunch an extension cord or run it under carpets or rugs.
  • Never burn gift wrappings, boxes, cartons, or other types of packing. These materials burn far too rapidly and often release harmful gasses.
  • Always use a screen in front of the fireplace to protect against flying sparks.
  • Use only seasoned and dried wood. Wet wood will pop and splutter and can send sparks out to grab your decorations!
  • Never leave the fire unattended or smouldering.
  • Clean the ashes regularly. Place the ashes in a metal container and store outside but NOT in your garage near flammable items until you are sure they are completely out.
  • When decorating make sure that you leave clear pathways around trees and large ornaments.
  • If hanging wreaths over fireplace or stockings on the mantel, make sure they are well attached and cannot fall in.
  • If you have a real Christmas tree remember to keep it watered as, once dry, it will burn very quickly.
  • In the kitchen many hands may make light work but if your helpers do not know your kitchen well make sure they are working safely.
  • Lots of cooking can mean more grease so keep a pot lid ready and some baking soda too. You can smother a grease fire quickly:

1. Turn off the heat source immediately

2. Smother flames with a lid

3. Use baking soda to smother flames that will not fit under a lid

4. Turn off the exhaust fan to prevent the fire spreading.

NEVER throw water on a grease fire as it will dilute the grease and spread the fire!

NEVER throw flour on a fire as it can explode.

Let`s make our Bracebridge homes safe and secure this holiday season by taking a few extra minutes to make sure all is prepared properly.