Erin and James Ulmer own a cow-calf operation near Takysie Lake, approximately 64 km south of Burns Lake.
According to Erin, their family business owned 44 cows by the beginning of last month. On Sept. 14, the Ulmer’s went out to perform a routine check on their herd, only to find out that nine of their cows and four of their calves were dead.
“We had checked on them [the herd] two days before and everything was fine,” said Erin. “It happened all at once.”
The couple originally thought their cows were killed in a predators attack involving wolves or coyotes, so their first instinct was to take the remaining herd out of that potentially dangerous area.
The Ulmer’s immediately contacted the Conservation Officer Service in Burns Lake. A conservation officer was sent to the site to do an assessment.
“Once he [the conservation officer] saw the water, he knew what it was,” said Erin.
The herd was believed to have drunk water from the lake containing cyanobacteria, the scientific name for blue-green algae.
Algae blooms are a “common natural phenomenon that occur in lakes during late summer and early autumn,” according to the Ministry of Environment.
“In this case, it is suspected the cattle died from ingesting water from the lake, but the animals were disposed of before testing could confirm the cause of death,” said the Ministry.
Fifty to 75 per cent of blue-green algae blooms contain toxins that can cause illness in people and death in animals. The toxin is contained in the cells of the algae, and once these cells are broken open – through force, boiling or when they die – the toxins are released.
The Ministry said the concern for area residents is the release of these toxins into the lake once the algae blooms die off. The toxin will in time dissipate and no longer be a health concern, but this process can take two to three weeks. In the meantime, an environmental health officer with Northern Health Authority advised locals to take precaution over those two to three weeks, recommending the use of “an alternate source of water for drinking, teeth brushing and cooking.”
Additionally, a regional agrologist with the Ministry of Agriculture was also involved due to cattle concerns. The Ministry of Agriculture has reached out to stakeholders in the area including the BC Cattlemen’s Association and provided them with an update on the situation.
Although cyanobacteria is said to be a “common natural phenomenon,” it might not be as well known for people in the area.
“We had never heard of it [cyanobacteria] before,” said Erin. “A lot of people don’t know about it.”
The Ulmer’s said they feel safe for their health because their drinking water originates from a different water source, and their herd are now drinking from a different pond. Erin said this was an “unfortunate year” for this incident to happen as cattle prices are at a high right now.
“The prices are higher than they have ever been,” she said.
The Ulmer’s estimate that the monetary value of their loss could have been up to $25,000.
Another business in the area has also been affected with the contaminated lake. Takysie Lake Resort was instructed not to serve its customers with water originated from Takysie Lake. Rise Johansen, co-owner of the resort, said she hasn’t got any updates from the authorities since the advisory was issued last month.
“I haven’t heard from them at all,” she said. “It’s been a month.”
According to Angela Wheeler, a health inspector for Northern Health, water should be safe to drink after the three-week period. An advisory was issued last month for locals not to consume water from the lake for the next three weeks. Wheeler said Northern Health knocked on doors and sent emails to local residents. Although Northern Health hasn’t been back in the area, they received a report of another blue-green algae bloom in a different part of Takysie Lake. Wheeler said the new blue-green algae bloom found should not be a concern for local residents due to the distance from local properties.
Additionally, Wheeler said animals are more susceptible to drink contaminated water because they can’t identify unusual smells or colouring in the water.
Conservation officer Jeff Palm said algae blooms are “quite short lived so it is surprising to have another one so late in the season.”
For more information on cyanobacteria, including causes of algae blooms and impacts on fish populations as well as human health, visit http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/water-eau/cyanobacter-eng.php.