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New York communities grapple with harmful algal blooms

This weekend New Yorkers will again flock to the water seeking relief from the heat. But there's a warning out about algae and the health risks it poses to people and pets.

Surfaces of several water bodies across the state have turned a glistening green following the appearance of algal blooms brought on by hot weather. They’ve appeared on Saratoga Lake, Albany's Washington Park Lake and the Town of Greenville pond in Greene County, which forced the town to drain it in preparation for dredging, to name a few.

There is a public health risk. Rebecca Gorney, a research scientist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, spoke of the dangers associated with such blooms during aJune webinar co-hosted by the New York Invasive Species Research Institute and New York State Water Resources Institute.

"There are a lot of different harms that can be associated with an algal bloom," said Gorney. "A lot of times we focus on the human health concerns. Both the freshwater and the marine taxa of algae can produce toxins that are potent enough to cause human illnesses and in rare cases, deaths. There are multiple routes of exposure to these toxins including recreational activities, drinking water, foods, aerosols and skin contact."

Riverkeeper's Dan Shapley is concerned about blooms on the Wallkill River and Rondout Creek, which flow through Ulster and other Hudson Valley counties.

"It's important for people to recognize that we've seen the extent and areas affected by this algae move from day to day, and even from hour to hour where it's apparent," Shapley said. "So just really stay alert, make sure that you are being observant, and familiarize yourself with what this algae can look like, it can look like spilled paint, it can look like pea soup, it can look like streaks on the water, it tends to be a very bright green, and very dramatic looking. And if the water looks like that, it's best to choose another spot to cool off."

Shapley says that major sources of nutrients aiding algae growth in larger water bodies include treated sewage and farm fertilizer.

Shapley notes that while blooms have become common in ponds and lakes now, a bloom like the one on the Wallkill is unusual because it is a flowing river. He says a similar August bloom in 2016 didn't dissipate until October.

"We don't know how frequently we're going to get the deluges versus the drought. But those are the extremes that we're going to swing back and forth between with some of the consequences of climate change," said Shapley. "So it's important, again, that we reduce the underlying pollution burden that these waterway water bodies face. Because anything we do to reduce greenhouse gases, which is obviously important, is not going to stop those extremes in the short term, we need to prepare for them, and we need to have water that's resilient enough to give us safe recreation, safe drinking water into the future."

Shapley says this summer's preponderance of blooms should be a wake-up call to action to reduce pollution and take better care of water bodies.

The DEC has a website portal to report harmful blooms.

Riverkeeper offers a series of blogs devoted to water quality issues.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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