State Algae Summit Report

I was fortunate to represent the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy at the New York State Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) Summit for Chautauqua, Conesus and Honeoye Lakes held in Rochester on March 26 along with several other area agency representatives. CWC Conservationist Claire Quadri was also in attendance. This was the fourth in a series of summits to address HABs on twelve representative lakes across the State, as part of Governor Cuomo’s $65 million initiative to protect New York State’s lakes from HABs. The purpose of the summit was to develop an action plan, strategies and cutting-edge pilot projects for addressing HABs in these three western New York watersheds.

It’s complicated! This phrase was a common theme repeated throughout the summit. Expert panelists discussed the sources and causes, potential control actions, and effect of climate change on the cyanobacteria responsible for harmful algae blooms. Experts participating in the Western New York Summit were: Dr. Art DeGaetano, Cornell University; Dr. Christopher Gobler, SUNY Stony Brook; Dr. Dave Matthews, Upstate Freshwater Institute; Dr. Greg Boyer, SUNY ESF; Dr. Nelson Hairston, Cornell University; Dr. Sally Flis, The Fertilizer Institute; Dr. Steve Souza, Princeton Hydro; and Dr. Tim Davis, Bowling Greene State University.

Known factors contributing to harmful algae blooms were summarized. Abundant nutrients are usually a main factor, primarily the concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen available to the algae. It was noted that, generally, if phosphorus levels are high, algae blooms are likely to occur; however, the more nitrogen that is available to the algae, the more likely it is that the cyanobacteria (“blue green algae”) will bloom and that those cyanobacteria will produce measurable toxins. Experts noted that the warming climate is a factor, with shorter lake ice cover, longer growing seasons, faster spring lake warming, and intense rain storms making conditions favorable for harmful algae blooms over longer periods of time and increasing the potential for more intense blooms. Zebra mussels may enhance cyanobacteria dominance as they generally don’t ingest cyanobacteria, consume beneficial algae, and may enhance nutrient availability to fuel blooms.

Major nutrient sources for Chautauqua Lake were listed as hay, pasture and cultivated crops (farms), human wastewater plant effluent (point sources), runoff from developed land, and internal loading from lake bottom sediments. These three lakes have considerable “internal loading” of phosphorus into the water in summer from over a century of excess phosphorus from poor land use practices, agriculture fertilization, and erosion and human and animal wastes accumulating in the bottom sediments. If internal loading is not addressed, it may be difficult to experience improvement in HABs just from watershed nutrient load reductions.

The panel scientists advocated for a comprehensive approach for addressing the factors contributing to these blooms, customized to the individual nature of each lake and its contributing watershed focusing on nutrient control and stormwater runoff management.

Scott Kishbaugh of the NYSDEC reported that projects to address internal loading of phosphorus may be possible as part of this initiative. However, several concerns were raised regarding treating lakes with chemicals to temporarily inactivate the release of phosphorus from lake sediments: 1) nutrient inactivation is extremely expensive for larger lakes such as these, 2) the chemical treatment using alum is not presently allowed by NYSDEC for algae control or nutrient inactivation, though this policy is being reviewed for possible future change, 3) core sediment studies must be done to determine the feasibility and methodology of treatment, and 4) alum can be toxic to aquatic organisms, so its use must be carefully based on a thorough scientific analysis. Internal nutrient control projects are “whole lake experiments,” and negative unintended consequences are likely to result from such treatments.

It was noted that aggressive, effective projects arresting the loading of nutrients to these lakes must be undertaken to control HABs over the long run. Controlling nutrients and sediments in the watershed will have other benefits to the tributaries and lakes in addition to reducing the fuel for HABs. The higher in the watershed that actions are taken to collect, store and infiltrate runoff, the better the tributary streams and lakes will be. Best management practices such as the creation of vernal pools, flood plain enhancement, wetland creation, stream buffers, storm water bio-swales, rain gardens, projects across agricultural, residential and commercial landscapes, and forest and stream buffer conservation should be undertaken.

In summary … It is complicated, but scientific experts, regulatory agencies, and government officials have been mobilized to evaluate each lake’s unique situation and take action. Draft action strategies will be published for public review and comment by end of May, with final strategies to be completed by early summer. Funding for the implementation of actions identified in the strategies is likely to be provided through existing NYSDEC and NYS Agriculture and Markets grant programs through the NYS Consolidated Funding Application process, with applications due in July. The evening public summary meeting of this summit is available for viewing online at livestream.com/hvccstreaming/HABsSummits

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauqua watershed.

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