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Blue-Green Algae (Cyanobacteria)

Blue-green algae is not an algae, but a bacteria called "cyanobacteria."  This bacteria produces a toxin that can cause skin and eye infections, liver damage, gastroenteritis, sickness and, at times, death.

Identifying blue-green bacteria

Blue-green algae will have a shimmering, blue-green colour. It may also have a foamy sheen-like appearance that looks like spilled paint floating on top of the water.  Heavy blooms appear like a solid shimmering blue-green sheen across the water's surface, or have an appearance and consistency similar to pea soup.


Warm daytime conditions in the summer months of June, July and August, combined with a nutrient rich body of fresh water, accelerate algal growth, including that of blue-green bacteria.

Photo courtesy of: Dr. Ron Zurawell, Ph.D., P.Biol.
Limnologist/Water Quality Specialist,
Alberta Environment

Time of year

Blooms of bacteria begin to appear during the month of June, and persist throughout the warm summer months.


The most common treatment of blue-green algae in an open dugout or pond is with a registered product containing copper sulphate.

The copper sulphate kills the blue-green algae, releasing toxins into the water. Therefore, it is recommended that 12 to 14 days should pass prior to any livestock, pet and/or human contact with the contaminated water to allow the toxins dissipate. If treating a dugout containing fish, it is recommended that only one-third of the dugout should be treated, using one-third of the recommended copper sulphate weight applied in treatments over a three day period. 

Do not use more than the recommended amount of the copper sulphate product. Higher levels will destroy some of the beneficial organisms such as zooplankton, that actively feed on bacteria and algae. 

Table 1. Approximate Dugout Capacities (Water depth 14 ft., 1.5:1 side slope, 4:1 end slope)

Dugout Width      
Dugout Length  60 ft. 80 ft 100 ft
160 ft.
200 ft.
240 ft.
280 ft.

The treatment process described above applies to non-draining waterbodies, such as dugouts, which are wholly contained on private land. In the case of waterbodies that drain to adjacent properties or waterways, a permit for the chemical control of aquatic nuisances is required from Saskatchewan Environment. 

Strong winds or disruption to the waterbody can also cause blue-green algae to die and release toxins. monitoring your water sources is important.


Blue-green bacteria prefers freshwater dugout and pond environments that are high in nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and where there is little to no water movement. Moving water by means of natural flow or aeration disrupts water temperature gradients, and maintains a more even water temperature at all depths of the body of water. Aeration also ensures a healthy aerobic environment which will promote the constant cycling of nutrients, and prevent a build-up of nutrients from occurring.

Photo courtesy of: Dr. Ron Zurawell, Ph.D., P.Biol.
Limnologist/Water Quality Specialist,
Alberta Environment

Treatment Products 

Most products use copper sulphate as their active ingredient. It functions as an algaecide and fungicide, and as such is registered under the federal Pest Control Products Act. For a list of registered products containing copper sulphate visit the Pest Management Regulatory Agency website.

Other products

There are a variety of registered products along with aluminum sulphate and hydrated lime that are coagulation products that bind to all bacteria. Once bound, the bacteria clumps together and sinks to the bottom of the dugout. While these products work to remove blue-green bacteria from the water surface, the dead blue-green bacteria cells can rupture, releasing toxins into the water over longer periods of time, as compared to treatment with copper sulphate products. 

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