Monitoring Algae

How can one know what algae are in the water? Sometimes the growths are large enough that someone can see enough with the naked eye to make at least a preliminary identification, but for the most part algae identification requires the use of substantial magnification. For many years (literally over 200) we have used lens systems organized into what we call a microscope to magnify algae enough to tell what they are, and there are few substitutes for looking. Even then, considerable training is needed to know what is being observed, leading to bottlenecks in getting algae data to support lake management. Having a trained phycologist (one who studies algae) look at algae under a microscope remains the most preferred option, but some useful substitutes have arisen with digital technology. A digital microscope can magnify an image on a screen for under $1000. That image can be captured as a photo that can be compared with online sources or sent to an expert. The USEPA, Region I, has been pioneering an effort to get lake groups with an interest in harmful algae blooms to use such systems to report algae in their lakes. The accumulation of images can be turned into useful data that allow characterization of bloom frequency, common bloom species, and possibly trends within or among lakes.

The advent of automated systems for detecting and photographing particles makes it possible to process samples quickly, but we are just getting to the point where image libraries can be used by instruments to actually make identifications. The FlowCam, made by Fluid Dynamics in Maine, counts particles and photographs them, allowing the user to catalog and identify them with some expertise. At even a rudimentary level, such systems allow fast assessment of possible threats to lake uses. The Imaging FlowCytobot, developed by Woods Hole MA scientists, has been adapted by PhycoTech of Michigan to actually make identifications, and this technology could meet the need for rapid but taxonomically detailed and accurate data generation. These instruments are expensive, but contracting for identification can be affordable.

While lack of images (visual or digital) limits identification, use of fluorescence systems to determine the amount and types of pigments present can help discern algae blooms. Chlorophyll-a, a photosynthetic pigment common to all algae, can be assessed with fluorescence, which is basically the amount of light at a particular wavelength emitted from a water sample after excitation by light at another wavelength. The amount of chlorophyll-a in different types of algae varies, so this is not a direct measure of biomass, and the quality and amount of natural light and the concentration of non-photosynthetic organic matter in the water can cause variation not related to algal biomass. However, in a general sense, fluorescence can be used to get a rough appraisal of how much algae is in the water. Further, phycobilin sensors that detect pigments specific to cyanobacteria and provide an estimate of how much cyanobacteria are in the sample. There are even more sophisticated systems that excite samples with a range of wavelengths and record fluorescence in a way that allows a relative approximation of multiple algae types in the sample. Calibration and “training” of the instrument for specific waterbodies improves reliability.

Compared to identification and mapping of rooted aquatic plants, algae assessment is more challenging, but effort is needed if one wants to understand all important aspects of a lake.

NECNALMS 2017 Conference

Come join us this Friday and Saturday for our annual 2017 NEC NALMS Conference, New England Waters: Real World Watershed Monitoring and Management Options! This year, our conference will be hosted by URI Watershed Watch, the New England Chapter of North American Lake Management Society, and Save The Lakes, Rhode Island’s Association for Lakes. The conference will take place this Friday, June 9th, and Saturday, June 10th, in Kingston, Rhode Island at the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Biological and Life Sciences. Friday will consist of workshops and the NEC-NALMS meeting, while Saturday will have general sessions and a tour of the EPA Mobile Lab. Both days will have other optional events, such as dinner and a paint and sip! Please help us accomplish our goal of bringing together New England’s citizens, scientists, and professionals to share information and experiences in order to help restore and protect our lakes and watersheds! For more program and cost information, please visit our website or contact We look forward to seeing you there!

Size Matters

The relative size of a watershed vs. the area of the lake it drains into has a large influence on water quality, independent of land use in the watershed. Lakes which are small relative to the area of their watersheds are subject to higher loading of nutrients per unit area and shorter detention times (more rapid flushing). As the watershed gets larger or the lake gets smaller, lake water quality becomes more and more a function of incoming stream water quality. Internal processes may not matter much when the watershed is delivering large amounts of water and associated contaminants such as sediment, bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus.

On the other hand, a larger lake with a smaller watershed may be minimally affected by its watershed on a day to day or week to week basis, with seasonal influences or even annual influences being the shortest time frame for change identifiable by monitoring. For lakes with detention times of close to a year or more, internal processes may dominate water quality, such as loss of oxygen in deep water and release of phosphorus from affected sediment. The inputs from the watershed matter in the long run, but do not greatly affect daily to monthly conditions when the incoming water is such a small percentage of the lake volume.

There is not an official cutoff for small and large watershed to lake area ratios, but a generally accepted scale has ratios of 50:1 having very high watershed influence on a short term basis. In all cases land use matters, but in the range of ratios of 20-30:1 that influence becomes very important. A watershed that is 20 times the size of the lake it drains into may have limited negative impacts if all forested, while the same ratio for a largely urbanized watershed may greatly impact water quality in the lake after storms.

It is therefore recommended that lake studies include a careful analysis of watershed to lake area ratio and land use within that watershed. Simple but fairly reliable models can be used to predict water quality based on these and a few other easily obtained watershed features, and represent an economical head start to understanding your lake and its management needs. Watershed and land use data can be readily obtained online for most areas, with a host of GIS-based programs available for use by those with minimal cartography skills. Try these out! It is actually fun as well as very educational. Do you know what flows to your lake?

Watershed size and land use mapping is now pretty easy from the comfort of your home.

Eutrophic Drinking Water

Providing safe drinking water is a major industry in the USA, and that industry rises to many challenges. The vast majority of drinking water flowing out of faucets is extremely safe and reliable, despite the occasional catastrophes (Toledo OH and Flint MI receiving the most publicity in recent years). The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was promulgated and amended several times to legislate what consumers get, and has a lot of beneficial provisions. However, there can be unintended consequences.

For example, the SDWA calls for corrosion prevention measures to minimize leaching of lead and copper from distribution pipes. It would be better to replace those pipes, but it is true that some drinking water is acidic and some leaching could occur from any metal pipe, so adding substances that coat the pipes or minimize leaching makes sense. However, the cost of anti-corrosion additives is not negligible, and it turns out that the most common (read “least expensive”) anti-corrosion agent includes a lot of phosphate. The concentration of phosphorus in water sent to customers for potable consumption can be more than 300 ug/L. That level of phosphorus is not unhealthy for people, but algae blooms can be caused by as little as 20 ug/L.  Algae are not going to bloom in dark distribution pipes, but once that water sees the light of day, growth is possible. Watered lawns may need less fertilizer as a result, but any runoff from such watering could wreak havoc on the receiving stream or lake. Flushing fire hydrants, an occasional operational need, can put a lot of phosphorus in the nearest water body.

We know that drinking water from a lake without treatment may be hazardous to our health, but how many of us know that the water we receive from most public supplies may be hazardous to the lake.

Is your tap water safe for your lake?

Drinking Water in Toilets

Those who remember comic Bob Newhart’s skits probably recall his famous rendition of Sir Walter Raleigh calling back to England on the not yet invented telephone and telling the queen that he had discovered tobacco. He tries to explain how it is used, and really struggles with making it sound attractive. This may have been an inspiration for many anti-tobacco campaigns, and we need a similar skit about how we treat water. Imagine trying to explain to some space traveler from afar that we spend money to protect our water supplies, expend extreme sums to treat water to make it drinkable, then put more of that water into toilets to convey wastes than we actually consume as potable water. It is hard to envision any explanation as being acceptable. Yet that is exactly what we do, despite existing alternatives, some of which are in use in other countries now. We really need some enlightened leadership to move our water management practices onto more sound ground.

The regulations governing the provision of drinking water are fairly extensive and strict. The water supplied to people for consumption is largely quite safe, despite the occasional hiccup like recent examples in Toledo Ohio and Flint Michigan. Those incidents should not be downplayed, but the public discussion should not focus on details, but rather look at the big picture. Source water protection is important, as is proper treatment, but what often gets forgotten is the distribution system. And that distribution system is grossly antiquated in much of the United States. By having just one intake source per dwelling, we have to receive only the best quality water. But if that distribution system has contaminants built into it, as with lead or copper pipes, we have to load the drinking water up with compounds that adjust the pH, coat the pipes and limit leaching of contaminants. Where the water sits for an extended time in the pipe, due to uneven demand, we have to make sure there is enough disinfectant present to keep bacteria from growing. There is a better solution.

If we had a new, smaller, pipe system to supply water for drinking, cooking and washing, the older pipe system could be used to supply less well treated water for toilet use and perhaps irrigation. There would be a cost to the extra infrastructure, but it could solve a lot of problems with current water quality and split water use in a way that would reduce treatment costs overall. Some places outside the USA now have dyed water coming into dwellings in one pipe for use in toilets, while drinking water is brought to taps separately. Recycling would mean less demand, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Utilities struggle to provide enough safe drinking water at times, especially during droughts, and we could ease that burden if we reduced the amount of high quality water that we literally flush down the toilet.

What’s next? Stocking toilets for fishing?

Low Impact Development

Development and property management techniques that minimize water pollution impacts off-site are called Low Impact Development, or LID. There is some very clever engineering involved in some cases, but for the most part this is not rocket science. Sources on the property should be minimized, but recognizing limits on residential properties, the vehicle for off-site transport, runoff, is restricted. The idea is to limit impervious surfaces and collect as much runoff as possible for infiltration or detention on the property. The focus is on actions at the individual property level, rather than some larger downstream facility to hold greater quantities of runoff long enough to allow it to be purified by natural or engineered means.

Typical techniques include bioretention (rain gardens), porous pavement, grass swales, and green roofs. These techniques can work in almost any climate; having a cold winter is not really a deterrent. Sizing is important, but the most critical limitation tends to be soil type. Turning runoff into ground water provides excellent treatment and has not resulted in extensive ground water contamination, although each case must be considered individually. However, not all soils are conducive to receiving as much runoff as can be derived from roofs, driveways and packed lawn areas. Engineering in such cases is most critical and may be challenging. Where runoff cannot be percolated, it may be detained and purified by various means before being released to a stream or lake.

There is a fair amount of literature out there that explains the techniques and reviews results, but one does have to do a lot of reading to get up to speed. One accessible reference that is helpful and has an extensive reference list is Ahiablame, L.M., Engel, B.A. & Chaubey, I. Water Air Soil Pollut (2012) 223: 4253. doi:10.1007/s11270-012-1189-2. Another publication, free from the USEPA, is Reducing Stormwater Costs Through Low Impact Development Strategies and Practices. The key limitation to wider application has been insufficient documentation of results, which is a difficult problem. One can demonstrate success at the individual property level, but showing positive impacts on an entire lake ecosystem is challenging, since the extent of application has to be very high. Another troublesome aspect is that removal of phosphorus, probably the most important nutrient entering our lakes, is not especially high; one cannot completely counter the impact of development on a lake with LID. The good news is that there is very little downside; anything homeowners can do to limit contaminated runoff from leaving the home site will benefit the lake, and application of LID techniques is less expensive than alternative measures.

Reducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact Development

Being Lake Smart

The best watershed management is applied at the source, but this means getting property owners to actively participate. Watershed management is a challenge, but there are programs to help. One such program is LakeSmart, a program of the Maine Lakes Society (MLS). LakeSmart educates, assists, and recognizes property owners who maintain their home sites in ways that manage storm water and waste water to minimize impacts on lakes. The program was created in 2004 by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), expanded in 2009 by a partnership between the Society and DEP, and is now fully privatized under the Maine Lakes Society. The MLS presents its distinctive blue and white signs to homeowners who meet program criteria, and is approaching its 5-year goal of 60 lake association participants by 2018.

LakeSmart awards were presented to over 80 homeowners during the summer of 2015.   Posted at the lakeside and driveway entrances of a property, the distinctive blue and white sign identifies the owner as a person who cares enough to take action to protect the lake. Properties that display the sign show others what lake-friendly living looks like, arouse interest, and motivate similar behavior by other community members. The MLS model for running LakeSmart is cost-effective, leveraging the power, interest and commitment of lake association members to speed the program’s spread.

Many homeowners grew up with suburban landscaping and are accustomed to its tidy lawns and open space. But suburban lawns, with big driveways and wide paths, are deadly for our lakes. LakeSmart landscaping provides a healthy alternative that mimics nature’s rich mosaic of plants, shrubs, winding paths, and shady trees. It looks great, enhances privacy, and works hard to protect property values, wildlife habitat, water quality, recreational opportunities and the vitality of local economies. It looks even better when you understand how important it is to minimize nutrient inputs to lakes. It may be hard to believe that one person’s expansive lawn or eroding camp road could be a threat to something as large and enduring as a lake, but when added to a shoreline full of similar sites, it can have a very real impact, especially over multiple years. All storm water that gets into a lake carries nutrients. Over time, the cumulative impact can be thousands of pounds of pollutants. The result, “death by a thousand cuts,” leads to algae blooms, fish kills, and the loss of water clarity and spawning habitat. One tiny rivulet from one rainstorm may not seem like much, but when multiplied across a lake watershed and added up over decades, eroded soil can turn a lake into a smelly, pea green mess.

This is a program that can be applied anywhere. It is certainly easier to build a lake-friendly property from the start, but retrofitting and minimizing impacts is not really that hard in most cases. Check out the MLS LakeSmart program at and contact Maggie Shannon at the Maine Lakes Society at  for more information.

Where to Get Help

Found an odd plant in your lake? Is the water green when it used to be clear? Not catching as many fish as you used to? Just want to understand what is going on in your lake? These and many more common questions do not necessarily have easy answers. In all likelihood, there is someone around who can in fact answer any lake-related question you can come up with, but finding them can be a chore. Here are a few ideas of where to get help.

In Maine, the Department of Environmental Protection (ME DEP) is home to two groups of lake experts in the Lake Assessment Section and the Invasive Plant Section. The Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program (VLMP) works closely with ME DEP, maintains the Lake of Maine website, and certifies volunteers to collect water quality data and conduct shallow water plant surveys.  Their program website contains a wealth of information, and their staff are very helpful.  Maine also has an umbrella organization that provides assistance to lake associations and individuals across the state, the Maine Lakes Society (MLS). This network of professionals and interested laypeople has their finger on the pulse of proposed legislation pertinent to lakes and keeps members informed; anyone interested in Maine lakes should be a member of this group.

New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has a solid lakes staff, and the University of New Hampshire also has very talented people who can answer lake questions. Both run volunteer monitoring programs. The New Hampshire Lakes Association is well organized and is celebrating 25 years of service to the lakes community this year; New Hampshire lakes enthusiasts would be well advised to get involved with this group.

Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation, has an active lakes unit and runs a volunteer monitoring program. The Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds is the state lake association and those interested in Vermont lakes should be members. There is also a newly formed statewide organization, the Coalition of Vermont Lakes, which focuses largely on lake restoration.

Massachusetts has a highly fragmented approach to lake assessment and management, so it is difficult to recommend one agency to contact. The Department of Environmental Protection handles permitting on a regional basis, but the Department of Conservation and Recreation has a Lakes and Ponds Program that does more outreach and actual lake management than the DEP. The Department of Fish and Game houses the fishery expertise in Massachusetts, as well as the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which handles endangered species issues. The Massachusetts Congress of Lake and Pond Associations is the state level organization for lake enthusiasts, and just held a very successful annual conference. If you live in the western part of the commonwealth, the Lake and Pond Association- West is a subset of MA COLAP that you should join.

Connecticut has suffered the greatest losses of lake-related personnel in recent years; there is no identifiable lakes assistance program, but there are knowledgeable people in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) who can help. Lake water quality monitoring is conducting by the Water Monitoring and Assessment Program at DEEP. The Inland Fisheries Division conducts fish surveys in lakes and large rivers under the Warmwater Fish Monitoring Program. The Agriculture Experiment Station conducts aquatic plant surveys under the Invasive Aquatic Plant Survey Program. There is also a Connecticut Federation of Lakes that offers membership and educational programs to anyone interested in lakes in Connecticut.

Rhode Island has a Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) that does have personnel who work with lakes, but not a defined lakes program. Save The Lakes (STL), RI’s association of lakes groups, is actively campaigning for a new hire at the department whose focus would be freshwater systems. But until then RIDEM provides STL a list of state contacts for Lakes, ponds and rivers which is available on the STL website. In addition, the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch, celebrating 30 years of service in 2017 and hosting the NECNALMS conference at URI in early June, has a wealth of knowledge and monitoring data on RI’s lakes. Their website is a central clearinghouse of information for the state and region.

And do not forget about the various consulting firms in New England. While these are for-profit entities, they are for the most part very dedicated to the profession and the welfare of our lakes, and are almost always willing to talk with lake stakeholders about problems and options. Be mindful of how much time you take up, but do not hesitate to contact local firms for advice.

Finally, NECNALMS itself and the international North American Lake Management Society are educational resources with websites and members who can help. These are groups you should strongly consider joining, both for the programs offered and the networking opportunities they present. No one has all the answers, but collectively we can usually figure things out, and both NECNALMS and NALMS represent some of the best minds in the business and the most dedicated lake professionals out there.

Invasive Species Primer

So what exactly is an invasive species? There is no textbook answer, or at least not one that everyone agrees on. The most common professional definition is a species not indigenous to the area that does ecological and/or economic damage when it becomes established. It is not merely any species that cause a nuisance, as many native species (such as water lilies or coontail) can do reach nuisance densities and are quite native to New England. It is not a species that invades but maintains a low density or even goes unnoticed, not impairing any use of the lake. And there are such species to be sure. When professionals talk about aquatic invasive species, they are usually referring to plants or animals that arrive at a lake and become a dominant component of the aquatic community, negatively impacting other species or uses of the lake. Several non-indigenous species of Myriophyllum, the watermilfoil genus, qualify, but there are native milfoils as well, some of which are even on various state endangered species lists! The zebra mussel is a great example, not well established in many New England lakes, but causing both economic and ecological harm when it invades. The list of invasive species for each state varies a bit, but there are a few dozen species that just about everyone agrees we would be better off without.

What is it about invasive species that make them objectionable? For the most part, species termed invasive displace other species by some competitive advantage or lack of predators, and become abundant enough to influence lake features that affect lake uses. Dense plant growths can include native species, but among the worst conditions are associated with Eurasian or variable leaf watermifoil, fanwort, and hydrilla, all species that came to New England in the last century and have not been well integrated into aquatic communities. It is possible that at some point balance will be achieved, and some people or even agencies make the argument that we don’t need to act; if we wait them out, the invaders will become part of functioning aquatic systems. This might be true in some cases, but given the track record, it does not seem responsible to wait that long to test the theory.

Invasive animal species, like the zebra mussel or spiny water flea, alter the flow of energy in a lake and affect the aquatic food web. Aggressive snakehead fish similarly impact the food web, but from the top down via predation. Just how much damage is done can vary greatly depending on the condition of the infested lake. Lakes with very healthy native plant communities that cover the bottom in the zone where light is adequate tend to resist colonization by invasive plants, although it is reasonable to expect eventual dominance by the invader. Lakes with no hard substrate or very little calcium in the water column are not likely to support dense populations of zebra mussels, but one can expect that all native freshwater clam shells will be colonized and those species are likely to be eliminated. There can even be some upside, as with clearer water from the filtering effect of zebra mussels, but this tends to favor buoyant cyanobacteria, so ultimately zebra mussels may promote objectionable algae blooms.

Invasive species are analogous to infectious diseases. Not every disease will kill you, but none are considered pleasant or desirable. Living with a disease is highly personal experience, but acting as a vector for that disease is irresponsible. Having an invasive species in a lake and deciding not to act to control it may be a valid position in some circumstances, but the potential impacts on other lakes in the area should be considered in making management decisions. This is a complicated area of judicial, regulatory and scientific interaction, and blanket statements that universally apply are hard to come by.

The cost of impacts vs. the cost of control is also a difficult topic. Actually putting dollar figures on impacts is not always easy, and even accurate estimation of control costs can be challenging. Ideally, eradication is the goal, but that may not be feasible in all cases. There is a whole school of thought on invasion ecology that considers the potential for control along a timeline of species establishment and impact. Often invasive species are not noticed or managed until they have reached the point on the curve where eradication is very expensive. Clearly prevention is the most cost-effective approach to invasive species management, and rapid response is the clear second choice for action, but both of these are given way less attention than they deserve in our monitoring and regulatory systems at the state level. Maintenance and restoration are the more expensive alternatives that apply once an invader has become established, and the cost can indeed by staggering. Millions of dollars are spent annually in New England alone to manage invasive species, rarely with eradication as a result or even a goal.

There is a very real need to enable citizens with an interest in lakes to recognize invasive species and to empower groups to take early action. In Massachusetts, the process and timeline for getting a permit for a rapid response program are the same as for addressing a longstanding infestation or addressing nuisance native species. We have no mandate to control invasive species, but we have laws and regulations that protect many species; if the control of an invasive species conflicts even a little with protection of an endangered species, the chances of getting a permit to control the invader are very slim. A more holistic approach is needed, but until we reach that stage of enlightenment, it is important for lake monitors to recognize invasive species and bring them to the attention of appropriate state agencies.



Ice Out and Its Meaning for Lakes

The annual date of ice out for some lakes is fodder for prognostication and even wagers, but for aquatic plants and animals, that date has deeper ecological significance. Light and temperature are key cues in the aquatic environment, and ice cover keeps lakes cold and dark in late winter. As the air temperature warms, the ice melts, usually leaving open water around the edge and then falling apart over deeper water over a short time period. If that date is earlier, algae and rooted plants can get a head start on spring growth. If that date is later, growth is delayed. Temperature also affects when hibernating aquatic animals, like turtles and frogs, become active. Fish are active even under the ice, as any ice fisherman will tell you, but are more aggressive after ice-out and turn to spawning activities based on temperature cues.

While lakes may not actively manage time, it is a lot like it is for people; if you get up early, you can get a lot more done in a day, and you may not be able to finish your to-do list if you sleep in. As the water warms and light penetrates further without ice, lots of biological processes increase in lakes. Bacteria decompose organic bottom sediments, using oxygen and releasing various substances into the water column. Algae take up nutrients and use sunlight to photosynthesize and make more biomass. Zooplankton eat algae and reproduce more frequently, but small fish also eat zooplankton and limit that trophic level by early summer in most lakes. Fish spawn and make small fish that eat those zooplankton.  In the meantime, rooted plants are growing, either from seeds, various winter buds, or root stocks, anywhere that light penetrates to a hospitable bottom substrate. Benthic invertebrates, often dependent on those plants, grow, reproduce and are eaten by fish or each other. A lake waking up from what seems like a winter sleep is indeed a busy place!

With variation in ice out date from year to year, and weather variation once the ice does go out, the sequence and intensity of cues will vary considerably from year to year, making every year unique to some extent. General patterns of plant growth, algae succession, fish spawning and other biological processes are known, but small changes can make quite a difference. A cold snap or windy period in May can retard stratification or cause a downturn in fish spawning that is not recoverable in that year. A very mild winter like we had going into 2016 can let perennial plants like invasive species of watermilfoil get a very early start (some plants may not even have died back to roots and stems) that outcompetes native species and makes it hard for harvesting programs to keep up. Weather plays a big role, and is influenced by climate change.

Climate change is a popular topic and the subject of spirited debates, but the data clearly show that lakes have been experiencing earlier ice-out dates over the last century (see graph). We seem to be losing a day of ice about every decade, such that based on the period of record going back about 150 years ice-out is now occurring two weeks earlier on average. Just keep in mind that aquatic organisms do not live in the “average”, and lakes have experienced both very late and very early ice out dates in just the last few years.

Ice out dates for various lakes.