At state-operated beaches in Indiana, officials have posted signs about blue-green algae. The yellow sign at Brookville Lake advised swimmers to not drink the water and shower afterwards. Staff photo by Scott L. Miley
At state-operated beaches in Indiana, officials have posted signs about blue-green algae. The yellow sign at Brookville Lake advised swimmers to not drink the water and shower afterwards. Staff photo by Scott L. Miley
Christopher Stephens and Scott L. Miley, Herald Bulletin

Matt Kiefer was wary about taking his family to swim at the scenic Brookville Lake beach at Mounds State Recreation Area where state officials have detected high levels of blue-green algae.

So before he drove his wife, Kiri, along with son Lucas, 4, and daughter Violet, 14 months, for a Sunday morning dip, he looked online for information.

“I read up on it and how a lot of lakes are affected by the algae through over-fertilization and runoff, but I haven’t seen any effects of it,” he said.

On that sunny day at Brookville Lake, a yellow sign advised swimmers to avoid drinking the lake water and to shower after swimming.

Brookville is just one of several Hoosier lakes where blue-green algae blooms have caused concern for naturalists and nature lovers.

The presence of the blooms can cause indigestion for swimmers, leave a scummy substance on boats and be lethal for pets.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has also issued advisories for other state-operated beaches including Worster Lake at Potato Creek State Park, Monroe Lake at Paynetown State Recreation Area and Cecil M. Harden Lake at Raccoon State Recreation Area.

Signs posted at the beaches indicate whether there’s a low risk, an advisory, a caution or a beach closing. Even at low risk, beachgoers are warned to bathe after swimming and to avoid drinking the water.

IDEM routinely tests state-owned lakes twice a month. When a body of water is under advisory it’s tested weekly. Lake visitors can check for algae by looking for large amounts of the blue-green oily substance floating on the surface.

Blue-Green lagoon creature

Algae is an important part of the ecosystem, feeding fish and turtles and providing shade for other aquatic creatures, Ross Plotkin, a naturalist at Raccoon Lake, said.

But many species of blue-green algae create toxins. When concentrated in large amounts that toxin can cause skin irritation for swimmers and, if water contaminated with the toxin is swallowed, respiratory obstruction, vomiting and diarrhea.

Blue-green algae can produce toxins such as microcystin, cylindrospermopsin and anatoxin-a.

The toxins can be fatal to animals when ingested, said Cindi Wagner, chief of the Targeted Monitoring Section in IDEM’s Watershed Assessment and Planning Branch.

“Humans, however, don’t typically ingest lake or stream water. If ingestion does incur, we rarely ingest enough to cause human illness,” she added.

In 2012, pet deaths attributed to blue-green algae were recorded near Fort Wayne. This summer, the Indiana Board of Animal Health is encouraging pet owners to wash pets immediately after contact with water contaminated by blue-green algae. Pets can get sick if they lick their coats after contact with toxins.

Blue-green algae first became a greater concern in Indiana in 2010 when neighboring Ohio had an outbreak in Lake Erie and at Grand Lake St. Marys in the northwestern part of the state.

Large algae blooms can create pockets of oxygen depleted zones and block sunlight, leading to massive fish and wildlife kills when algae growth is at its peak.

“When you have a serious bloom, you see an effect on the lake’s entire ecosystem,” Plotkin said.

Fighting back

Because of the danger of releasing large amounts of the toxin inside the algae, the state is careful not to treat a massive bloom of blue-green algae all at once, said Ryan Clem of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Treatment can kill algae, but Plotkin argued it’s worse to use algaecide, the most effective of which is silver nitrate, than to just let the bloom work itself out. Silver nitrate “has a very harmful effect on all wildlife and outright kills fish,” he warned.

When weather cools or rain dilutes a lake, algae blooms begin to die off naturally.

In Indiana, where blooms haven’t become as toxic, officials aren’t ready to take extreme action like dredging lakes or removing large quantities of fish. Instead, they’re hoping IDEM’s testing for blue-green algae will yield grants to control the spread of blooms.

Working with the Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Board of Animal Health, IDEM is focused on getting information to the public and to pet owners.

“It’s a problem that’s going to take a long time to solve,” Wagner said. “We’re doing what we can, hoping to get the message to enough people.”

State agencies are hoping farmers and others who add to nitrogen and phosphorous runoff, armed with information, will adjust their practices to use less fertilizer, thereby generating less runoff.

Swimming upstream

So far, the algae problem doesn’t seem to have a widespread negative impact on Indiana businesses.

Pirate’s Cove Marina, which offers boat rental near Salamonie Lake, just south of Huntington, hasn’t seen a decline in business, according to employee Maranda Ceemer.

“We haven’t really had an issue this year, no customers asking about it and the lake looks great,” she said.

Two marinas on Monroe Lake, near Bloomington, which is also under an algae advisory, said they’ve not had customers ask about it or seen a drop in business.

After news spread of an Ohio outbreak, Plotkin said, he fielded “more than a few” calls from people worried about using Indiana’s lakes and streams.

“They’ve heard about it and want to know, ‘Is it safe to swim or fish?’” he recounted. “Usually I tell them, basically, ‘It is safe until you have those toxins. Normal precautionary measures like washing off and cleaning fish, and not drinking lake water, will keep you safe.’”

However, he said business is pretty similar to recent years at Raccoon Lake.

It appears most swimmers and boaters are like Kiefer and his family, who plan to continue using the lake.

Though Kiefer made sure his family bathed after their swim in Brookville Lake, he didn’t want the algae scare to ruin his family’s trip to the beach.

“We were very worried about it,” said Kiefer, who lives in Cleves, Ohio, about 30 miles from Brookville Lake. “But it really hasn’t affected what we’re doing.”

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