August is always hot in Montana and many of us like to find some relief from the heat at the lake. Water-loving dogs enjoy refreshing swims as well. However, you might want to think twice before you, your kids or your pets take a dip in area lakes because this time of year is when toxic algae can form. It not only looks gross, but it can be harmful to humans and dogs.

Photo by Kristy Savaria and Bri Savaria
Photo by Kristy Savaria and Bri Savaria, used with permission.

Toxic algae may be present at Lake Elmo.

My friend Kristy shared the photos above that were taken yesterday (8/10) at Lake Elmo, where Montana FW&P has posted signage warning that toxic algae may be present. Visitors are reminded:

  • Not to swim or recreate in the water.
  • Do not drink the water. You shouldn't do this regardless of the algae levels. Gross.
  • Keep pets, livestock, and horses away from blue-green algae.
  • If you're fishing, clean any catches well and discard guts.
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Image via YouTube/Montana DPHHS
Image via YouTube/Montana DPHHS

How to identify the harmful algae.

There are good algae, and then there are bad algae called "Harmful Algal Blooms" or HABS. Discerning the difference can be challenging. The Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS) provides some tips on identification HERE. They wrote,

HABs appear as “pea soup”, “grass clippings”, or “spilled paint” and are usually suspended in the water column or floating on the surface in a mat. The bloom can be many colors including green, blue, gold, or red.

The video below is a good introduction to HABs.

Not all algal blooms are toxic.

The interesting thing about these algae blooms is that you can't tell via visual inspection if they're dangerous or not. In this lengthy PDF provided by Montana DEQ, DPHHS, and FW&P they wrote,

There is no way to determine if a suspected bloom is toxic just by looking at it. Just because there is a cyanobacteria bloom doesn’t mean that cyanotoxins are present or being released into the water and, at the other end of the spectrum, cyanotoxins can be present when there is no bloom. It is also easy to mistake growths of green algae for HABs.

Symptoms of toxic algae poisoning in humans and animals can vary widely and may include abdominal pain, loss of appetite, jaundice, dark or reduced urine, diarrhea, vomiting, liver damage, hemorrhages, numbness of the lips, tingling in fingers and toes, stumbling, seizures, paralysis, disorientation, headaches, inactivity, elevated heart rate, dizziness, respiratory failure or death. Yikes. I'd rather be safe than sorry.

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