By: Evan Hall, WMEAC Policy Intern
A type of toxic algae stemming from harmful algae blooms or HABs known as cyanobacteria, present in many Muskegon County lakes, has reached its highest levels on record this year in Muskegon Lake and White Lake. Cyanobacteria are commonly present during the summertime and during warmer weather. Diverting from past years, this year the cyanobacteria bloom has sustained itself deep into the fall, lasting until mid-November of this year. Due to the cyanobacteria becoming more pronounced in the Muskegon area, alongside the fact that it can be harmful in certain instances to both humans and pets, it is important to be educated on how to best identify, be aware and avoid the risks that they can present.
Knowing where cyanobacteria are present in Muskegon County can be half the battle in protecting oneself from the harmful algae. It has been identified in White Lake at Svensson Park and the Mill Pond kayak launch, and alongside Heritage Landing, Fisherman’s Landing and Grand Trunk boat launch in Muskegon Lake. It is vital to know that cyanobacteria have become virtually non-existent now that it is December. We know this due to the work of people like Aaron Parker, aquatic biologist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), who has been testing for cyanobacteria throughout the summer and fall. Parker’s most recent results showed that Muskegon Lake was cyanobacteria free in early November. White Lake still had some low levels in mid-November, but he has discontinued testing for this year as with the temperatures dropping, he knows cyanobacteria in the lakes will soon be gone for the year as we head further into December with its much colder temperatures.
While this year’s cyanobacteria blooms have ceased, it is still important to be able to identify cyanobacteria in Muskegon County lakes as we look ahead to next year. Cyanobacteria itself can most commonly be identified as bright green in color and often looks like long paint streaks or sheens across the top of the water’s surface. To a lesser degree, however, it can also appear as red, pink or purple. Furthermore, when it dies, it will turn into a mix of blue and white. Public Health Muskegon County warning signs are regularly posted in areas of known cyanobacteria locations, to alert to potential occurrences of harmful algae blooms.
Cyanobacteria grows more rapidly in warmer environments and we are likely seeing an increase in toxic algae levels as the planet heats up due to climate change. As Dr. Richard R. Rediske, an ecological professor at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, affirms, “This year was different, because of increasing temperatures, the lake was much warmer later in the year in 2022 than previous years. The bloom lasted into November when it usually tapers off in September. It is really an issue of climate change, when we have more rainfall in the spring adding nutrients from runoff, we have heavier blooms, like this year, increased stormwater runoff may result in more blooms of cyanobacteria. In addition, the species of cyanobacteria in 2021 appeared to produce more of the toxin than previous years. This may be due to a shift in species and or environmental factors that trigger toxin production.” Although there has yet to be ample years of testing and data gathering to conclude climate change is the definitive cause these harmful algal blooms are becoming more prevalent every year on a global basis.
Coming in contact with cyanobacteria itself or through contaminated waters, by means of inhalation, incidental ingestion or skin contact, can lead to a laundry list of harmful effects. These symptoms include: a flu-like illness, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, numbness, difficulty breathing skin irritation, including blisters, rashes, hives and runny eyes. Another major concern with cyanobacteria exposure is pets, more specifically dogs. Dogs often drink large quantities of water while swimming. From this, dogs can develop many of the same harmful effects from the algae as people, including death, which has been reported in some instances. However, it is often more severe due to the higher levels of water they tend to intake.
Cyanobacteria needs certain nutrients to thrive and there are several actions that we can take to help tame it across Muskegon County’s lakes, as Aaron Parker from EGLE stresses, “Anybody living in the Muskegon Lake watershed can do their part to reduce the amount of nutrients ending up in Muskegon Lake: No longer fertilizing their lawns or at least reducing the amount of fertilizer they’re using, maintain their septic systems or if communities can switch from septic systems to sewer systems, that helps. The agricultural producers in this watershed can use best management practices to reduce the amount of nutrients running off their fields, all of that can help a little.”
Cyanobacteria blooms are not going away and in fact they may become an increasingly problematic issue for those residing in Muskegon County as temperatures continue to rise globally. As Dr. Rediske insists, “It is definitely something we will see more of with climate change and we have to build monitoring programs and response actions. We have to limit nutrients even more to the lakes and we will have to monitor for toxins in Lake Michigan drinking water intakes.” Educating oneself and our community on how to help reduce the spread of cyanobacteria, alongside knowing how to identify and avoid it, is going to be crucial in order to keep Muskegon County residents safe from this harmful type of algae moving forward.
For more information, visit the CDC website on cyanobacteria, which gives a checklist breakdown of common questions about cyanobacteria. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy website is another great resource that gives more relevant local updates on the cyanobacteria situation in Michigan. The EGLE site also contains a helpful cyanobacteria, (HAB), FAQ section of their own.
Thank you to Aaron Parker and his colleagues from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy or EGLE, for their ongoing testing for cyanobacteria in Muskegon County.
Thank you to Aaron Parker from EGLE and Professor Richard R. Rediske Ph.D. from Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute for their interviews with WMEAC, during which they provided a significant amount of key information used for this post.
Muskegon Channel article and interview-
CDC HAB’s website-
New York Times article-
Photo Credit: Tanya Cabala