What Are Cyanobacteria and Why Should You Care?

Blue-green algae poses a threat to public health and the environment; New Hampshire residents are taking action
Cyanobacteria form a bloom in a lake

In August 2018 Warren Muir was one of several concerned New Hampshire residents who witnessed firsthand how cyanobacteria can disrupt a lake’s health. A bloom accumulated along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, near where he lives, prompting the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to issue a three-week warning while samples were gathered and analyzed for toxins.

Analyzing a cyanobacteria bloom sample with a microscopeCyanobacteria are single-celled, microscopic organisms found naturally in all types of water. They use sunlight to make their own food. Cyanobacteria become problematic when they quickly multiply and form a bloom. This occurs in warm, slow-moving water due to an excess of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) from sources like fertilizer runoff or septic tank overflows. 

When a bloom forms, the water often changes to a blue-green color that many people describe as looking similar to pea soup, with a scum-like texture. The 2018 Winnipesaukee bloom was identified as Gloeotrichia, which consists of colonies that look like small, fuzzy balls with a green or brownish-yellow color.

For Muir, a retired biological scientist who serves as a volunteer monitor for Lake Winnipesaukee through Extension’s Lakes Lay Monitoring Program, seeing the bloom was eye-opening. In response, he joined together with fellow Wolfeboro residents to form a Cyanobacteria task force.

Potential Impacts When Cyanobacteria Form a Bloom

Public Health Threat

Cyanobacterial toxins can cause health problems in humans ranging from skin irritations to damage of the liver and nervous system. These toxins can also be harmful or fatal for animals, including dogs that drink or swim in contaminated water.

Environmental Concern

Nutrient availability, sunlight and temperature can all contribute to the formation of blooms. Research is currently underway to analyze the effects on aquatic life forms and the subsequent effects that can occur as toxins travel through the food chain (bioaccumulation).

Economic Loss

New Hampshire is known for its beautiful lakes. Tourism remains a significant economic driver for the state. Beyond being aesthetically displeasing, cyanobacterial blooms halt recreational activities and may lead to a reduction in property values.

A Monitoring Collaborative is Formed

Shane Bradt presents at the 2020 cyanobacteria conference
Shane Bradt

Back in 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region I Laboratory and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission invited stakeholders to a cyanobacteria workgroup. Fast-forward to 2020 and the Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative (CMC) is comprised of professional scientists, citizen scientists and trained water professionals. 

At a recent conference in January 2020, the group convened on the UNH campus to discuss ongoing efforts to track blooms and strategize about ways to educate the public. The conference was a combined effort of UNH Extension, the CMC, the EPA, the UNH Department of Biological Sciences and the UNH Center for Freshwater Biology. An impressive 69 participants attended with an additional 18 joining through video chat from all across New England and from as far away as Colorado. Participants in attendance represented environmental nonprofits, town and city departments, state and federal organizations and Penobscot Indian Nation.

Extension Specialist Shane Bradt presented at and helped organize the conference. Bradt works in the areas of water quality and geospatial technologies in addition to teaching for UNH’s biological sciences and geography department. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at UNH studying cyanobacteria, under the mentorship of UNH professor Jim Haney

Bradt has been instrumental in convening stakeholders around this issue to develop consistent methods for both short-term cyanobacterial bloom detection and long-term monitoring of cyanobacterial populations. Beyond monitoring and generating awareness, the collaborative is also trying to proactively prevent blooms from occurring in the first place.

“We look at ways to lessen the problem, which means thinking about the conditions that allow the blooms to flourish,” Bradt said. Decreasing the amount of nutrient runoff into lakes requires looking at the activity that occurs near the water like paving, fertilization, tree cutting and septic system installments.

Collage showing tools for monitoring cyanobacteria and presenters at the conference
Top: UNH Professor Jim Haney displays tools that help with cyanobacteria monitoring including a fluorometer. Bottom: Some of the panelists at the 2020 cyanobacteria conference (L to R): Jon Balanoff of the Acton Wakefield Watersheds Alliance, Kristin Conte of Manchester Water Works, Walter Tokarz of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Hilary Snook of the U.S. EPA. The bloomWatch app allows the public to help track cyanobacterial blooms through a smartphone.

How You Can Help

Hilary Snook of the EPA serves as the program lead for the CMC. At the 2020 conference he presented about ways that the public can help scientists and water resource managers (view videos from the conference here). “We’re connecting people with different backgrounds, developing new tools—whether it’s a webpage or Twitter account,” he said.

Here are a few ways you can get involved.

Download the bloomWatch App

Learn more about cyanobacteria and report blooms by using the bloomWatch app on your smartphone. 

Connect with Your Local Lake Association

Find out what is happening with monitoring and management of your nearby lake. Not sure who to contact? Check out this list of New Hampshire lake associations.

Decide What Next Steps Are Right For You

Contact Shane Bradt at UNH Extension through e-mail (shane.bradt@unh.edu) by phone (603-862-4277) or on Twitter (@limnoshane) to find out more ways you can get involved with helping track and monitor cyanobacteria.

Learn More: Contact Extension