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Blair Horner: Harmful Algae Blooms Put Water Supplies At Risk

Summers are getting hotter as the planet heats up.  The combination of hotter summers and strong storms are not only inconvenient; they also can cause serious health problems too.

One example is the growing presence of harmful algae blooms in lake water.  Harmful algae blooms are more frequent and occurring earlier across New York and the nation.  They can pose a threat to recreation and can taint drinking water supplies.

Harmful algal blooms aren’t your typical green surface ooze that you may see on the top of lake waters.  While ugly to look at when at the surface, a bloom can also be dangerous, so much so that the state has a blanket policy to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

While every algal bloom isn't toxic -- some algal species can produce both toxic and nontoxic blooms -- toxic blooms can cause problems for swimmers and other recreational users in the form of rashes or allergic reactions.  People who swim in a bloom may experience different side effects including nausea, vomiting, headaches, respiratory problems, skin rash and other reactions.  There have also been reports nationwide of dogs and livestock dying shortly after swimming or wading in a bloom.

When the blooms are found in drinking water supplies, it can result in that system being unusable for human consumption.  Last year, for example, Onondaga County’s Skaneateles Lake had multiple toxic blooms during the summer months.  The toxins threatened the drinking water of not only local town and village residents, but also those in the city of Syracuse and surrounding areas.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance.  They often crop up in late summer and early fall, (although they have started to show up in New York’s surface waters) when waters are warm and calm. They also need nutrients to bloom, so often they’ll be observed after heavy storms.

The nutrients they primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen and the algal blooms have increased due to a rise in nutrient runoff from sources such as soil erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns, erosion from river banks, river beds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent.  All of these are the major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen entering water ways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

The state is charged with monitoring the types of runoff that can lead to algal blooms.  In the past year, the Cuomo Administration has offered financial support to a limited number of sites, but the spread of these blooms far exceeds currently available resources.

Unfortunately, the recent heat wave helped trigger some algae blooms that showed up in lakes and reservoirs across New York State.

According to the Department of Conservation, as of last week some 39 surface water areas had some evidence of algal blooms.  In Albany, for example, Washington Park Pond has some confirmed algae blooms.  Areas in which the New York City reservoir system is located (most notably in Putnam and Westchester counties) have had reports of algae blooms. 

If you want to check out the lakes in which algae blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website, which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates weekly. 

In August 2017, there were 66 lakes identified as being at risk of algae blooms, including the drinking water supplies for some towns in upstate.  For example, Auburn had to have its drinking water treated for contamination from algae blooms. 

While we all must do everything possible to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively embrace energy efficiency programs and alternative energy sources, due to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up.  There is not much that New York can do to reduce the damage that has already been done and is fueling the current rising heat of the planet.  But when it comes to protecting surface waters and drinking water supplies, the state has to do a lot more to reduce the runoff from agriculture, landscaping and wastewater sources.  We must be proactive about protecting our drinking water supplies and recreational waters.

Failing to do so will drastically compound the looming catastrophe of what global warming is doing to the atmosphere.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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