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Blue-green algae – the scourge of the Finger Lakes!


In 2017, all eleven Finger Lakes had toxic blooms. But the problem is not just the Finger Lakes – harmful algal blooms (HABs) have affected lakes across the state. In fact, it is such a problem that Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a $65 million proposal for combating HABs in 12 lakes in the state. Owasco Lake, which suffered 27.5 beach closure days in 2017, is one of five Finger Lakes on that list.

Priority lakes were identified that are vulnerable to HABs, and that are critical sources of drinking water. Owasco Lake, which has been experiencing HABs since 2012, is high on the list for several reasons: it was the first water body in the state to have harmful algal bloom toxins threaten the drinking water; this lake provides drinking water to approximately 45,000 people; and Owasco is very data rich, as significant research has already begun there.

Photo credit: Owasco Lake Watershed Inspectors


On March 10, the Owasco Watershed Lake Association (OWLA) hosted a scientific symposium “in plain English” at the Auburn Public Theater. Dr. John Halfman, Professor of Environmental Studies at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, started the symposium with his informative presentation on the Status of Owasco Lake, 2017. There were five other presenters who discussed sampling, testing, and prevention strategies, plans and technologies.

I won’t attempt to summarize the science behind the problem, but here are a few factoids of interest:

o There are always blue-green algae in the water, but not always in bloom concentrations.

o Blooms aren’t always toxic, and one can’t tell simply by looking at it.

o HABs are found in six continents (you guessed it – not Antarctica).

o There is a “legacy” load of nutrients (notably phosphorous) in the sediments, which can be most effectively removed by harvesting the aquatic plant life, which is labor intensive.

o Blue-green algae (BGA) is worst at near-shore sites.

o Blooms start after the warmest weather, and end with cooler, windy days.

o On calm days, there is a higher concentration of BGA near the surface. On

windy days, the wind mixes the water column, and dilutes the concentration below the surface.

o Point sources of pollution have been regulated for decades, but non-point sources

(storm water runoff, agriculture, sediment from eroded stream banks), which are primary contributors to the problem, have never been controlled.

o With increased frequency and severity of rainfall, the addition of total

phosphorous and total suspended solids into the lake will continue to increase.

Okay, it wasn’t all bad news. As described by the speakers, there has already been a lot done to study the problem and mitigate the damage. The state has held HAB summits in various regions to hear the grievances of the populace. Another one of the very encouraging aspects of this program was seen in the lobby between talks. Karen Schaub, a science teacher at Moravia Middle School, had students participate in a contest of problem-based learning. They studied the issue of blue-green algae, and were charged with the task of designing a solution to the problem.

The entire seventh grade class took part in this challenge, and the results were impressive! How encouraging to see today’s youth engaged in civic matters!


Thanks to Rick Nelson and Owasco Watershed Lake Association for putting on this informative, cautionary, and yet hopeful event. We can all be part of the solution by helping to reduce nutrient loading to the lake, in whichever lake’s watershed we happen to live. Let’s all pay attention to what we put on our lawns, and into our beautiful lakes!

Interested in learning more about the Owasco Watershed Lake Association? Click here visit their web site: OWLA


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