Citizens will monitor lake blue-green algae
SENECA LAKE--Undeterred by a recent setback in court, dozens of private citizen volunteers are gearing up to monitor expected outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae in Seneca Lake this summer.
Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, are a growing statewide menace that feature cyanobacteria that release potent liver and skin toxins.
HABs were reported in 157 waterbodies across the state last year, more than triple the number in 2012, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
In the most extreme cases, such as Honeoye Lake, "you can't go in the water without risking your health or the life of your pet," said Edwin Przybylowicz of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association.
After HABs were first identified in Seneca Lake in 2015, SLPWA organized a team of 45 DEC-trained volunteers to monitor the lake's nearly 80-mile shoreline last summer. Przybylowicz said the group hopes to recruit 60 volunteers this summer.
In 2015, laboratory tests confirmed three blue-green algae blooms on Seneca Lake -- at Severne Point and Serenity Road in Yates County and Kime Beach in Seneca County. Twelve other suspected HABs went untested.
Last year, four more Seneca HABs were confirmed -- two at Kime Beach and one each at Perry Point in Yates County and just south of Peach Orchard in Schuyler County. The Perry Point bloom contained particularly high toxins.
HABs tend to hug the shoreline, and they are typically short-lived, according to John Halfman, a professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges and a leading expert on Finger Lakes water quality.
The blooms grow in late summer and early fall when water temperatures are highest. They thrive in waters rich in nutrients, particularly phosphorus, and in calm, sunny conditions shortly after a heavy rainfall. They quickly dissipate when wind and waves rise or temperatures fall.
The DEC notes that HABs are nearly impossible to distinguish from other types of algae scum that are common and harmless. The agency posts the following public warning on its website:
"People, pets and livestock should avoid contact with water that is discolored or has algae scums on the surface. Colors can include shades of green, blue-green, yellow, brown or red....
"Stop using water and seek medical attention immediately if symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties occur after drinking or having contact with blooms or untreated surface water."
Halfman notes that traces of blue-green algae bacteria are present in all the Finger Lakes, even those like Keuka, Skaneateles, Hemlock and Canadice that have not reported dangerous blooms.
A complex combination of local conditions causes cyanobacteria to explode into a bloom, but the exact formula remains elusive. "Something (or somethings) must have triggered the recent and large nearshore blue-green-algal blooms in many but not all of the Finger Lakes," Halfman wrote in his detailed December 2016 update on Finger Lakes water quality.
Halfman found that blooms tend to occur shortly after heavy rainfalls that deliver fresh nutrients to lakes from stream runoffs.
Several of the seven confirmed HABs on Seneca Lake in 2015 and 2016 were located near streams that are high in nutrients from farm runoff, water treatment plants or other sources.
Kime Beach, for example, is about three miles north of Reeder Creek, which has shown exceptionally high levels of phosphorus -- possibly due to the disposal of munitions at the Seneca Army Depot. Prodded by SLPWA, the DEC recently added Reeder Creek to its list of impaired streams.
The HABs at Perry Point last August and at Serenity Road in 2015 occurred within two miles of the Keuka Outlet in Dresden, which also has had notably high nutrient levels.
"The lake is big enough that you're not going to see a jump (in nutrients) in a year or two," Przybylowicz said. "But there is more nutrient going into the lake than is coming out. That is not good."
Another potential fuel for Seneca Lake HABs is the Greenidge Power Plant in Dresden, which restarted this spring after a pause of more than five years. The DEC is allowing the plant to use an outdated form of cooling that discharges tens of millions of gallons of heated water into the lake on a daily basis.
Gregory Boyer, the head of the Syracuse laboratory that confirmed Seneca Lake's HABs, stated in an affidavit that raising lake water temperatures around Dresden "could result in increased HABs outbreaks in that area."
Boyer did not return a phone call and an email seeking comment.
His affidavit was filed in a Sierra Club lawsuit against Greenidge and the DEC that sought an injunction to block the plant's restart, pending a full environmental impact statement. Lawyers for the DEC and Greenidge urged Acting Supreme Court Justice William F. Kocher to disregard Boyer's affidavit. Kocher dismissed the entire case last month.
Other affidavits filed by lakeshore residents in Dresden expressed opposition to the DEC's decision to allow Greenidge to use an inefficient and outdated "once-through" cooling system. In a 2011 policy memo, the DEC commissioner stated that "closed-cycle" cooling was preferable and would be the state's new standard. Closed-cycle cooling can cut discharges by 95 percent or more.
John and Eileen Moreland said in their affidavit that Greenidge's discharges of up to 190 million gallons a day at temperatures up to 110 degrees would further warm the water near the water intake pipe at their Dresden lakeside home.
"I'm disgusted with the DEC that they didn't insist on closed-cycle cooling," John Moreland, a retired Rochester physician, said in a recent interview.
Eileen Moreland, a retired nurse who served as a HAB monitor last year, said she, her husband and their children have qualms about the environmental future of the lake.
That's the main reason their children are not "over-enthusiastic" about inheriting the lake property the family has enjoyed since 1980, he said.