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When the River Nene looks like a lawn…

Blue green algae is all over our waterscape, Steve Scoles reflects on what it is and what it means...

Is it just me? Lakes and rivers didn’t look like this when we were kids. Summer is here and the blue-green algae is back turning our waterscape into a soggy lawn.

Upstream from the Whitewater Centre

At this time of year I’m cycling along the River Nene and around Delapre Lake a lot, sometimes daily.

There are signs up at Delapre warning people not to swim but there is a huge public yearning for beach space in Northampton and you see it manifesting around the lake fishing spots which turn into little family bbq and sunbathing stations.

Upstream from the Whitewater Centre

And if someone has a paddle and doesn’t get sick then it looks like the signs are nonsense. It’s very difficult to hold back the will of the people on a sunny day.

However blue-green algae is sometimes poisonous – you don’t know if it is until you test it – and can give you sickness, diarrhoea and harm your pets. The wind also blows blooms (as the big outbreaks are known) so contaminated water might look clear or a tricky breeze might coax the algae towards you when you think you are safe.

Upstream from the Whitewater Centre

There is not one single cause of the algae but phosphates and pollution in the water can encourage it. It is not a plant but actually a form of bacteria containing chlorophyll so it can photosynthesise sunlight.

At normal levels the algae exists in the water, providing oxygen during the day and being a food source for some creatures.

Blue green algae is a form of bacteria

However when there are large amounts it forms a scum when it floats to the surface and after releasing carbon dioxide into the water all night can dangerously deprive marine life of oxygen in the early morning.

The onset of more wintry conditions tends to cause the algae to die back.

So it’s not an unnatural thing but it does seem to be an unusual thing and if we see ourselves as stewards of the environment around us (which we are, whether we recognise it or not) it seems like avoiding it and waiting for it to go away is not enough.

The issue of keeping people safe around water is almost another subject altogether but the scenes around Delapre Lake when the sun comes out has convinced me of something else.

If you tune into the monthly Ambidextrous show on NLive Radio you may well have heard the ladies mournfully discussing the Lido that once existed on Midsummer Meadow.

Some outdoor provision for paddling and swimming in Northampton where people can chill in their little groups, grab a coffee or a fruit smoothie, plenty of parking for bicycles… it would probably divert a lot of people away from the algae gardens as well as being a community asset for all those other reasons.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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