Editor’s note: This story by Susan Smallheer was published in the Brattleboro Reformer on Aug. 17.
SAXTONS RIVER — The Saxtons River Recreation Area has been closed until further notice because of high levels of blue-green algae, which is usually found along Lake Champlain.
Rockingham Health Officer Charles Wise said Thursday the Department of Health did tests earlier in the week that showed high levels of the dangerous algae bloom, which is also known as cyanobacteria.
The blue-green algae can contain harmful toxins that cause illness in humans, and can also cause illness and even death in pets and livestock, according to the Department of Health. The town closed the recreation area on Wednesday.
“The cyanobacteria bloom has given the water a greenish tint with brown coloration along the shore line. The bloom is most visible late mornings, afternoons and on sunny days. The bloom has not been visible early mornings or on overcast, cloudy days,” Wise said.
There can be health effects from swimming in water during an active bloom, he said. Common symptoms are skin rashes and stomach illness.
Possible health effects include sharp, severe stomach problems such as vomiting and diarrhea, numb limbs, tingling fingers and toes or dizziness. Liver damage can also result from swallowing the water, and the damage may take hours or days to show up in people or animals.
In animals, symptoms include weakness or staggering, difficulty breathing, convulsions and vomiting or diarrhea.
Wise said the problem was discovered because of a complaint by a Rockingham woman, who said that both she, her husband and friends had varying reactions after swimming at the recreation area, which is located on Pleasant Valley Road outside of Saxtons River village. The swimming area is essentially a pond that has fresh water regularly pumped into it.
Wise said the swimming season was already winding down at the community swimming hole, which was established back in 1967, but that the blue-green algae diagnosis had put an end to the season, until tests show the algae bloom has lifted. While the gates have been closed to the area because of the lack of lifeguards, residents regularly use the area anyway, at their own risk.
Wise said he went to the rec area on Wednesday to collect water samples and mail them off to the Department of Health, but that the state had actually beat him to it and had done tests ahead of him.
According to the Vermont Department of Health website, the level of contamination at the rec area is considered a “high alert.”
He said while he was there, he encountered two fathers with children who didn’t seem to be taking the warnings about the blue-green algae seriously, and he hoped the community would learn about the dangers of the problem and stay away.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is generally green or blue-green in color, but it can also be brown, purple, red or white. It may create a thick mat of foam along the shoreline and may resemble thick pea soup or spilled paint on the water’s surface, according to the Department of Health.
Ryan Stoodley, Rockingham’s recreation director, said that a woman had become sick after swimming at the earth-bottom pool, and had raised concerns with the town. He said the town had tested the area’s water for possible e coli contamination, but those results showed it well within limits.
Wise said the woman who became ill had suggested it might be blue-green algae, and the town started to test for it.
“I have to confess, it was nothing on my radar,” said Wise.
According to the Department of Health’s website dealing with blue-green algae, almost all of the sites of “high alert” contamination in the past several years have been along Lake Champlain or Lake Carmi, which is in northwestern Vermont. Other current “high alerts” are in St. Albans and Shelburne, according to the website. The Department of Health’s office was closed Thursday because of Bennington Battle Day.
Stoodley and Wise said they didn’t think the presence of the flock of Canada geese, which have been present at the rec area for most of the summer, created the problem.
Wise said it was likely a combination of the high temperatures and the heavy rainfall that has washed contaminants into the pool.
“It’s anybody’s guess,” he said, adding that the town would be testing the swim area regularly until the algae bloom lifted.
Additional information can be found here.