Experts working to determine if algae in Lake Pontchartrain is harmful

Updated: Jun. 30, 2019 at 9:50 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - To an untrained eye, aerial photos showing Lake Pontchartrain’s waters tinted green may appear more alarming than they actually are, according to the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

John Lopez is a scientist working with the group and was part of the crew who took the photos, which he said will be important in helping them figure out exactly what kind of algae is growing in the lake and just how harmful it is.

“We see the color of the lake, and we don’t see the dense matting so, we think that’s a good sign,” Lopez said. “The lake is green, a little greener than normal. Some areas were even a little abnormally more green, kind of a lime green but, overall, it didn’t look terribly different than normal.”

Lopez said his team is focusing their attention on the lake’s perimeter, since wind patterns push the plant life to the shoreline.

“We figured, if we’re going to see something, it would more likely be concentrated on the lake shore,” he said.

Algae is microscopic and largely harmless -- a normal organism naturally found in bodies of water. According to Lopez, the problem lies when there’s too much of it or the wrong kind. And while Lopez said at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be dangerously large amounts.

“What we don’t know for sure is the species of algae that might be there, that might be the harmful algal bloom type,” Lopez said.

Though the photos don’t tell the whole story, they do allow scientists to identify potential problem areas so they can gather samples at those spots.

“You really only know unless you take a sample and analyze it, unfortunately,” Lopez said.

He said the foundation is working with multiple agencies to get the data they need. Until then, Lopez said it’s important for people to heed state advisories and avoid contact with the algae by steering clear of areas in the lake that look strange or dark green.

According to Lopez, the Bonnet Carre Spillway has contributed to the increased algae growth. He said in addition to changing the salinity of the waters, the spillway introduces other potential hazards, such as debris, snakes and alligators. But, Lopez said once the spillway closes, tides will bring normal water back into the lake, allowing it to recover within a few months.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Wednesday (June 26) that crews may begin closing the spillway in the next two - three weeks.

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