GENEVA — Of the 11 Finger Lakes, only Seneca, Skaneateles and Canandaigua lakes have been spared the aquatic pea soup known as harmful algal blooms this summer.
That information was part of Wednesday’s fourth annual HABs Seminar at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Nearly 100 people attended.
Experts explained what HABs look like, the dangers they pose if toxins are found in the algae, and how state, local and federal officials plan to handle them in the future.
If they are not mitigated, the blooms will increase and the Finger Lakes’ growing tourism industry will be hurt, one expert warned.
“Bodies of water with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients are most likely to have HABs,” explained Tony Prestigiacomo, a research scientist with the newly formed Finger Lakes Water Hub in Syracuse. “Algae is a single-cell plant that normally is not harmful — it is present in many bodies of water — but the blue-green algae called HABs contains cyanobacteria toxins that people and pets should avoid. Exposure can impact skin, lungs and nerves, and symptoms are diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, skin and throat inflammation. HABs can disrupt a lake’s food chain, cause economic harm, reduce property values and impact drinking water.
“From 2012 to now, it has gotten worse,” Prestigiacomo added.
He said more algae locations are being found for two reasons: there are more blooms, and there are more people looking for them.
“In Cayuga Lake, there have been more than 50 reports of blooms in 72 days, most of them in the south end by Ithaca, where it is shallow,” he said. “Keuka Lake saw an outbreak last week, and it led to the closing of a swimming beach at the state park. We were surprised at that.’’
In response to a serious outbreak of HABs in Owasco Lake last year, a situation that required emergency measures in the treatment of Auburn’s municipal water supply, the state Department of Environmental Conservation formed the Finger Lakes Water Hub. The group uses the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry as a testing site for suspected HAB samples.
The DEC budgeted $600,000 for the Hub and hired a staff of four, including Prestigiacomo, who has been assigned to monitor and assess water quality in Owasco, Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua lakes.
Research scientist Lewis McCaffrey has been assigned by the Hub to monitor Otisco, Seneca, Honeoye and Conesus lakes. Aimee Clinkhammer oversees Skaneateles, Canadice and Hemlock lakes.
Hub supervisor Scott Cook told the crowd that they are working at acquiring all available data on the 11 Finger Lakes and using it to create a Finger Lakes Action Agenda.
“Once we have a plan, we will be eligible for funds to get projects done to attack the HAB problem in the lakes,” Cook said. “We hope to utilize emerging technologies in dealing with algae blooms, work with lake stakeholders and continue to provide monitoring and sampling.”
Cook noted that a Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program has been activated to work on all 11 Finger Lakes, with at least two trained personnel monitoring and sampling each lake. Cook said enhanced HAB surveillance is now in effect on four lakes, including Cayuga.
“We are working to come up with a plan to limit nitrogen and phosphorus loading in the lakes,” Cook said.
At the seminar, printed information was distributed on what to do if a HAB is spotted or any water with a green hue resembling pea soup or paint is noticed. It can be hard to tell a harmful bloom from a nonharmful bloom, so people are advised to avoid swimming, boating, fishing or other recreation in discolored water. People should avoid eating fish caught in areas with a bloom. And, never drink, prepare food, cook or make ice with untreated surface water, even if there is no visible bloom.