All Eyes on our Lakes

posted Sep 20, 2016, 10:27 AM by Joseph Bickard   [ updated Sep 21, 2016, 4:37 AM ]

A Bates College professor is studying a blue-green algae, and volunteers who live on Raymond’s Panther Pond have joined her.

To the untrained eye, the algae looks like banal grains of sand floating in the water. But for scientists and citizen scientists around the state, including Professor Holly Ewing of Bates College and two Raymond residents, they are an object of great interest.

Roughly the size of the tip of a pen and with tiny spires, the algae has also been described as “miniature Koosh balls,” the rubber ball toy that gained popularity in the 1990s.

The algae, called gloeotrichia, is of interest for a number of reasons. Although it’s small, when a large bloom happens, it can muck up the lake, creating a green, scummy layer on the surface. This makes it a potential threat to lake’s aesthetics, impacts property values and is unappealing to swimmers and boaters.

Blue-green algae made headlines in 2014 when a large bloom in Lake Erie shut down the water supply in Toledo, Ohio. At high levels, the algae is toxic and can affect the liver.

But Ewing is quick to clarify that the concentration of algae in Panther Pond isn’t close to reaching dangerous levels.

However, she said, scientists “want to keep an eye on something toxic in drinking water, even if it’s not present at a level that poses a threat.”

Another concern, Ewing said, is that the blue-green algae is capable to adding both nitrogen and phosphorous to the water. These sediments, which are also brought into lakes by stormwater runoff that picks up nutrients in the soil, in turn lead to greater algae growth.

“The thing we can do to best save our lakes is to keep the nutrients and sediments out,” said Ewing, and that’s yet another reason to keep an eye on the blue-green algae.

Ewing started the study in 2008, she said, and introduced Panther Pond to the study two years later.

Lake Auburn and several lakes in the Belgrade area are also part of the study, which aims to identify patterns in growth of blue-green algae and factors that contribute to having a heavy or light bloom.

Ewing said the algae tends to be most common in lakes that are fairly clear, with a moderate level of nutrients. If there is an early ice out, the algae, like most plants, will have a longer growing season, which can lead to greater bloom.

As for trends over the years, Ewing said, the bloom is variable. The study will need more data before she can draw conclusions about whether the algae is becoming more prevalent in the lakes.

The Lakes Environmental Association, a Bridgton-based nonprofit, is also studying gloeotrichia in the Lakes Region. Since 2014, the association has measured concentrations of the algae in 26 lakes, including Long Lake and Brandy Pond in Naples.

Andrea and Wayne Powell, who live on Panther Pond, are among the volunteers collecting water samples that are used in Ewing’s study.

Several years ago, the Powells volunteered their property as a collection site for the study. Two years ago, they decided to take a more active role.

They visit three sites on the pond every week, and collect one bottle of water from each site. At each location, they evaluate the concentration of the algae in the water by comparing it with seven diagrams that show differing levels of concentration.

When the Powells return to shore with their samples, they place a single drop of iodine into each bottle. The chemical kills and preserves the bacteria, preventing it from deteriorating and allowing it to be studied in the Bates lab later. The three newest bottles join roughly 30 samples that have been taken during the summer on a neatly organized shelf in their shed.

Andrea Powell, who has summered on the pond for more than six decades, said she has been “informally sampling” the algae since she was a kid. The little green dots would collect in the lining of her swimsuit, especially later in August, when the algae tends to be most abundant.

Powell, a former science teacher, also has an affinity for citizen-science opportunities.

As a lifelong summer resident, Powell said she also has “a vested interest in the lake. We love the lake, and want to protect its health.”

“This lake is our life,” Wayne Powell added. “It’s the future of our kids, and someone needs to watch out for it.”