Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Harmful algal blooms are here

harmful algal bloomsIt’s harmful algal bloom season, and Lake George had its first reported one of the season last week.

Getting information about it was messy. The Lake George Association first reported the suspicious bloom, found during a routine Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program survey, to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. DEC staff confirmed it was a harmful algal bloom and posted that information on its notifications page. I saw that report and requested information from both LGA staff and the DEC. What then ensued was a back-and-forth between DEC and LGA, via email and phone. It was clear that though the bloom was documented a couple of days before, no one was on the same page about how to get information out about it. There was even discrepancy over whether to call it a harmful algal bloom.

To be fair, this is only the second year Lake George has had documented harmful algal blooms. Everyone is new to this. When I worked at The Citizen newspaper in central New York, Owasco, Cayuga and Skaneateles lakes had blooms constantly throughout the summer and fall. We received daily press releases from the Cayuga County Health Department about whether a bloom was spotted near drinking water intakes, if a bloom closed a beach and if a bloom tested toxic. Check out the Cayuga County Health Department’s website on harmful algal blooms. It has drinking water sampling data, answers to frequently asked questions and photos and videos.

All of these data points are relevant for Lake George. The village’s drinking water intake pipe is at the southern end of the lake where blooms have been spotted, just like Owasco Lake. Like Skaneateles Lake, people around Lake George pump drinking water directly into their homes. And like Owasco Lake, Lake George has several beaches close to where blooms are showing up. Basic information should include where a bloom was spotted, if beaches were impacted, if beaches were or are closed, if any drinking water concerns exist and if any testing is being done. This is a public health concern. Hopefully state and local officials and nonprofits watching the lake can band together and get important messages out in a timely manner.

Here is some more boilerplate information I have learned from covering this issue for over five years.

Harmful algal blooms are not algae. They’re a photosynthesizing bacteria called cyanobacteria. They’re naturally occurring in the environment, and are actually the organisms responsible for creating our oxygenated atmosphere (read–these are important organisms and not all bad!). They’re also unique in that they can float up and down in the water. They eat nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. When cyanobacteria become visible in the water, the DEC will typically label that a harmful algal bloom. These blooms tend to happen on a warm, sunny and calm day after a rain event. Some cyanobacteria can produce liver and neurotoxins. Researchers are still trying to figure out why that is. It can be expensive and time consuming to test for these toxins, and not all labs can do it. In general anytime you see something that looks suspiciously like a bloom (spilled paint, blue-green streaks, strange polka dots--look for photos here), you should stay out of it. Also be sure to keep your pets out of the water. If your pet does jump into discolored water, hose it down immediately so it cannot lick its fur and get a concentrated dose.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Gwen’s weekly “Adirondack Report” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Gwen is the environmental policy reporter for Adirondack Explorer.

7 Responses

  1. Todd Miller says:

    Great spot-on information and it’s IMPORTANT to point out the weaknesses in local water groups and government agencies in the siting the location, identification, reporting, and the implementation of appropriate water- and health-management practices to protect the health of the public. Hopefully, bringing attention to these weaknesses in watershed protection groups and government agencies in the Adirondacks will light a fire under them so they improve their responses to cyanobacteria outbreaks. I, too have come from the central NY where the data collection, reporting, and responding to cyanobacteria outbreaks are a whole level above that in the Adirondacks. The watershed groups and government agencies here can learn much from those in Central NY.

  2. Bill says:

    Thank you for this useful information. It’s disappointing that the LGA and the DEC didn’t share their findings with you.

  3. Ed Burke says:

    Great info and background on the same problem elsewhere and how other public officials quickly handle it.

    Did I hear the theme to ‘JAWS’ cueing when I read “There was even discrepancy over whether to call it a harmful algal bloom.”

  4. Vanessa B says:

    Yeah this is no joke, and some of the bacteria can be extremely toxic if ingested. Though I accidentally kayaked through a bloom last year and came out no worse for the wear. The kayak was a rental, however, so perhaps if you boat through with a boat you own it’s good to similarly hose the boat down so it cannot spread to other water bodies?

    • Gwendolyn Craig says:

      Hi Vanessa, It is not spread from lake to lake like invasive species. Cyanobacteria is naturally occurring in the environment. It’s probably a good idea to still hose down your boat so you don’t touch it, but as far as spreading it, lakes already have it. It’s just a matter of whether or not the recipe comes together where it’s visible and forms toxins. That being said, CDC and state say not to boat in it either. If it’s toxic you could be stirring up the cells in the air and breathing them. This has some good info, too

  5. Stuart Alan says:

    Another phenomenal article by Ms. Craig: Excellent background & context, objective, informative, educational, timely, accurate, well written & objective. Bravo Ms. Craig & A.A. More of this please.

  6. mrdale14424 says:

    As a member of the LGA, I just sent this article to the association asking why this information wasn’t being made available to reporters.

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