New Project Assesses Cyanobacteria in Drinking Water


Nutrients are essential for the growth and health of all organisms. But when too many nutrients run off the land into lakes and coastal waters, populations of algae and cyanobacteria may grow out of control, blooming into a slick mess that can restrict recreation and starve fish of oxygen. Cyanobacteria, a form of bacteria that are photosynthetic, has been a particular concern for coastal and lake communities across the Northeast. Blooms of the species — colloquially referred to as blue-green algae and lumped under the umbrella of harmful algal blooms — can be toxic and cause rashes, nausea, and illness in humans and pets.

This summer, researchers at Bigelow Laboratory are working to assess cyanobacteria in Adams Pond and Knickerbocker Lake, the region’s two primary sources of drinking water. The project is led by Senior Research Scientist Rachel Sipler, who directs the laboratory’s Water, Health and Humans Initiative, in partnership with Bigelow Laboratory scientists Pete Countway and Robin Sleith. The goal is to catch problems before they threaten drinking water supplies.

“We have a strategic opportunity to learn from other states and other systems to be able to reduce our nutrient loads going into these lakes to mitigate HABs,” Sipler said. “It’s always easier to prevent a problem than to fix it once it’s here.”

Sipler describes Adams and Knickerbocker as “degrading, but not yet degraded.” That’s where the Boothbay Region Clean Drinking Water Initiative comes in.

The collaboration evolved in the last several years, bringing together nonprofits, such as Bigelow Laboratory, the Boothbay Region Land Trust, and the YMCA, with the Boothbay Region Water District and local municipal governments. The goal is to maintain the health of the region’s freshwater reservoirs through education and land conservation across the watershed.

Adams Pond and Knickerbocker Lake supply 200 million gallons of water per year to the peninsula, but, since 1989, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has designated these lakes as “threatened” due to an expanding human footprint and pollution. Ongoing development is likely to exacerbate these issues by introducing new contaminants from septic systems, fertilizers, cars, and pesticides, while climate-driven extreme weather can also exert additional pressure on the lakes’ health.

“I live and work in Boothbay, and my daughter swims in Knickerbocker,” Sipler said. “So, preserving these ecosystems is paramount to me, both personally and professionally.”

Sipler is Bigelow Laboratory’s representative on the Clean Drinking Water Initiative steering committee. She brings scientific expertise and analytical capacity to allow the group to assess the risks from HABs and other potential contaminants.

“Our role is to both target the science needs for the system and better understand the data we have,” Sipler said. “There’s important scientific measurements that Bigelow Laboratory can contribute that are beneficial to the Clean Drinking Water Initiative and, more broadly, to those of us living and working in this region.”

This summer, HABs monitoring is the focus of the Clean Drinking Water Initiative’s science efforts, supported by a Source Water Protection Grant from the Maine Drinking Water Program. The Boothbay Region Water District is collecting samples from both lakes twice a month through the HABs season, into September, as part of its routine lake monitoring program. Bigelow Laboratory is then analyzing those samples to assess the composition of the algae population and its toxicity. The work builds off of research that Bigelow Laboratory scientists have undertaken throughout Maine for years, which provides context on the conditions of lake systems across the state.

Though HABs are not new to Maine’s waterways, Sipler said they have been on the rise in recent years.

“We know that increasing nutrient runoff and rising temperatures are the leading causes of increasing HABs across the globe,” Sipler said. “Maine is experiencing both.”

While there have previously been some exploratory studies of HABs in Adams and Knickerbocker, this focused study provides more frequent and real-time information than has ever been available before. This intensive monitoring will allow the community to respond proactively to mitigate HABs by tackling the environmental conditions that drive them — before they become a significant problem.

“Our goal is to have enough information to be in a hopeful state, so we don’t need to be scared of these things but can be empowered to deal with them,” Sipler said. “One thing that Mainers pride themselves on is their clean water, and we want to keep it that way.”

While this research project is ongoing, it’s important for lake users to use caution if the water looks green or cloudy, smells bad or has scum on the surface. If you observe these conditions, do not go into the water, and do not let your pets in the water. Please contact Boothbay Region Water District (207-350-3127) and report your observations.

Photos: The Boothbay Region Clean Drinking Water Initiative is aimed at protecting Knickerbocker Lake and other sources of local drinking water through education and conservation. Rachel Sipler