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Are the state's algae plans enough to solve the HAB problem?


Governor Cuomo plans to develop an action plan by this Spring to reduce sources of pollution that spark the algal blooms that closed portions of Cayuga Lake to swimming last summer, even threatening the popular Women Swimmin fundraiser for Hospicare. But not everyone thinks the state’s ambitious timeframe, nor its relatively paltry financial contributions, are realistic in addressing the root of the problem.

“It’s absurd to suggest that a giant watershed can be assessed and that a comprehensive cleanup plan at a cost of $500,000 per lake can be adopted in three months,” said local environmental activist Walter Hang.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) on Cayuga Lake are not new. The colonies of algae that grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, birds and other animals were first spotted on Cayuga Lake in 1998, said State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125).

Not all algal blooms are harmful. But when floating mats, scum and discolored water in shades of green, blue-green, yellow, brown or red blanket the lake’s surface, they can be harmful or toxic and should be avoided, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Last summer, the DEC detected HABs on a dozen lakes across New York State including water bodies such as Skaneateles Lake, the primary source of drinking water for the City of Syracuse. In response, Governor Cuomo announced in December his plans to provide $65 million to address the problem with $500,000 going to support each lake’s action plan to reduce the pollution sources.

“I don’t know whether they are thinking that $65 million is the first installment,” said Lifton, noting that the contributing factors are difficult. “Ninety days may not be long enough to put together a comprehensive feasibility study,” she said.

But Lifton appreciates that the governor is making the issue a priority. So does Hilary Lambert, Steward/Executive Director of Cayuga Lake Watershed Network.

“Research into the causes and triggers of HABs – along with volunteer training of people to monitor and report HABs – need to come first and be a top priority for funding,” said Lambert in an email.

“No matter what the causes and triggers, farmers should not be allowing manure spills into our creeks and lake,” she added.

sediment (Photo: Bill Hecht)

Storm water run-off, water leaving farms and properties on soils laced with fertilizer, non point source pollution and the impacts of Cornell’s lake source cooling project on the lake’s phosphorous levels (a project which has elicited some controversy in recent years from environmentalists in the community), all need to be considered as possible contributing factors, Lifton said.

Hang points out that possible solutions include establishing riparian buffers where there is a 30-foot-long hedge between the end of an agricultural field and the water. Shrubby willows and cocoa matting placed in the buffer zones could help prevent erosion along creek beds, which lead to excessive nutrient runoff. But riparian buffers are controversial and expensive because they take up land that would normally be used to grow crops, he said.

Aside from working on the HABs, the state still needs to complete the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – a requirement in the Clean Water Act for water bodies, such as the southern half of Cayuga Lake and more than 200 other waterways in New York State – that are classified as an impaired water body. A TMDL is an implementation plan that includes “a calculation of the maximum amount of pollutant (nitrogen, phosphorous, pathogens, etc.) that a waterbody can receive and still meet water quality standards,” according to the DEC’s website.

The southern end of Cayuga Lake was listed on the Section 303(d) registry of impaired water bodies due to sediment and nutrient loads feeding weed and algal growth that impair summer recreational uses. Since 2002, a TMDL was required but was never published. The DEC did not respond to questions inquiring when the report will be released.

Governor Cuomo’s HAB effort will be funded using a combination of existing monies in the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) and Clean Water Infrastructure Act funding, as well as components to be included in the 2018-19 EPF budget. The 2018-19 budget will have to be approved by the New York State Legislature before the monies are available.

State water quality experts from the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Health, and Agriculture and Markets are putting together teams of national, state and local experts to address the HAB problems. Cayuga Lake is included in the Governor’s Central Group, along with Owasco Lake and Skaneateles Lake.

In 2016, Owasco Lake that provides water for the public water system for the city of Auburn and the town of Owasco was the first water body in the state to have HABs threaten the drinking water. Lake Skaneateles supplies water to the city of Syracuse and residents in other parts of Onondaga County, including Skaneateles and Elbridge.

The names of the experts and the local stakeholders to sit on the Central Group and develop an action plan have not been publicly announced.