State seeks to prevent algae blooms on Champlain, Lake George

Lake George as viewed from Million Dollar Beach. Photo by Phil Brown.

New York environmental authorities and stakeholders have issued detailed plans for preventing harmful algae blooms on Lake Champlain and Lake George, which are among a dozen priority waterways statewide.

The Cuomo administration has promised $65 million for the effort to rid New York lakes of the blooms, also called blue-green algae, that consist generally of visible surface patches of cyanobacteria. They have been a particular problem in the Finger Lakes.

Naturally present in low numbers in most freshwater systems, their rapid growth is fueled by warm temperatures and high levels of organic nutrients, which include fertilizer and sewage.

Some cyanobacteria types produce toxins harmful to people and animals that swallow or inhale the bacteria or come into contact with them through skin. State health officials recommend avoiding contact with all types.

The plan for 120-mile-long Lake Champlain cites 11 beach closures from algae blooms at Port Henry from 2012 to 2014 and New York closures the past two years in July and August at the Isle La Motte section of the lake about 50 miles farther north.

Primary factors listed are nutrients and sediment from farming, other watershed sources such as ditches, stormwater runoff from developed areas, wastewater treatment plant discharges, and septic systems.

At Port Henry, on the eastern edge of the Adirondack Park, the plan calls for better stormwater runoff control and upgrading the wastewater treatment plant to filter phosphorous.

At Isle La Motte, north of the Adirondacks near Plattsburgh, the report calls for implementing “a livestock exclusion program” to minimize nutrient loading and erosion, as well as “alternative manure management practices” at animal feeding operations, and roadside ditch improvements.

The Champlain plan is posted by the Department of Environmental Conservation at online.

It acknowledges that beach closures on Champlain are often attributable to elevated coliform bacteria, which are found in the digestive tracts of people and other animals, but says the increasing frequency of algae blooms has resulted in more frequent closures.

Lake George, 32 miles long, which flows north through the LaChute River into Champlain, is the only other Adirondack lake on the state priority list.

It has had no confirmed algae blooms, but is “vulnerable,” according to the report. Million Dollar Beach at its southern end has been closed at times the past two summers when high levels of coliform were detected, including 10 days last summer.

In a report Wednesday, the DEC said extensive testing of the sewer system in the area found one break in a main sewer line, which was repaired, several compromised lateral connections to private residences that were fixed. It also found stormwater catch basins and treatment devices in the vicinity of the beach that contained high bacteria levels, likely from accumulated debris and sediment, that have been cleaned.

The department also has identified “severe defects in numerous pipe segments, manholes, and pump stations” in the Town of Lake George’s Caldwell Sewer District that are likely contributors with an estimated repair cost of $463,000. The town recently was awarded grants for the repairs. The DEC said water monitoring continues this beach season.

The Lake George plan against algae blooms calls for upgrading municipal wastewater collection and treatment systems, better stormwater management, implementing a program for septic system inspection and maintenance and extending sanitary sewers to existing commercial properties.

The Lake George Association said it has advocated for major updates or replacements at the wastewater treatment plants and is glad to see the state helping communities make them. The group said recent studies back up its assertion that untreated stormwater from developed areas is “by far the greatest human contributor to water quality declines” and that it will be testing water this summer in the Million Dollar Beach area.

“We decided last year to spot check a number of the other beaches on Lake George last year to see if the E.coli was widespread or localized,” association spokesman Patrick Dowd said Thursday. “Our series of water tests showed the beaches were safe for recreation, according to the state guidelines. … The plan is to continue to do that this year.”

The Lake George algae plan is posted at online.

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About Michael Virtanen

Michael Virtanen is a former Explorer staff reporter who also previously worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press and for daily newspapers in Albany, Utica and Amsterdam, N.Y.

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