By BRANDON LOOMIS
Federal scientists sank tubes, cylinders and cords into Finger Lakes waters last week for the start of a three-year test that environmental officials hope will help predict when New York lakes are at risk for dangerous algal blooms.
It’s a potential tool in the quest to understand and fight a scourge that Adirondack dwellers have noticed in some corners of the park, and that scientists fear may worsen as the region warms and its waters absorb more pollution from old sewer and septic systems. Warmer water more readily grows algal blooms.
A U.S. Geological Survey crew installed temperature gauges, nutrient sensors and fluorometers that can measure chlorophyll and colors indicating certain species of algae in Seneca Lake near Geneva. They strung the instruments on cables from an anchored pontoon platform to provide real-time data from the bottom, mid-water and surface, and installed a camera to watch for the telltale green slick of a cyanobacteria outbreak.
They planned the same at nearby Owasco and Skaneateles lakes, the latter of which experienced harmful algal blooms two years ago for the first time that anyone has confirmed – and in a lake that is generally low in phosphorous and other nutrients that can run off from surrounding lands and then feed algae. The equipment test will cost $2.8 million, with about three-quarters funded by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Any of the technologies and approaches that we develop here could be transferred to any waterbody,” said Jennifer Graham, who coordinates the USGS harmful algal boom program nationwide.
The idea is to see whether officials can pinpoint the conditions that are likely to generate large algal blooms that can choke lakes, kill fish or even sicken human swimmers. If so, and if the new fluorometers accurately show when toxic species of algae are taking over, the state could use similar equipment to build early warning systems on Adirondack lakes such as Champlain, which has experienced harmful algal blooms, and George, which has not but is being watched closely as sewage and septic systems around it age.
This equipment is meant to replace the time- and labor-intensive practice of going to a site where someone reports bright-green water, taking a sample and sending it off to a lab for weeks of analysis.
These blooms pose threats to both environmental health and lake tourism economies, noted USGS hydrologist Guy Foster, who heads his agency’s response in New York.
“If people are coming to this place and it’s nothing but green, smelly water,” he said, “people are going to stop coming here.”
That’s what the Lake George Association fears for the “Queen of American Lakes,” in the southeastern Adirondacks. So far the summer destination has suffered some bad publicity over sporadic e. coli-related beach closures, but not a harmful algal bloom. As the water warms, though, reducing nutrients that filter in from old septic tanks becomes a critical mission in avoiding that eventuality, association spokesman Patrick Dowd said.
“We can’t change the temperature,” he said. “What we can change is the food that gets put in to support algal growth.”
The association is promoting the conversion of septic tanks to small sewage collector and treatment systems to serve dispersed developments around the lake. Dowd said he’s interested in the USGS study, and that the association could support installing similar equipment in Lake George.
The outbreak at Skaneateles, a lake few expected would suffer blooms because of its low natural nutrient loads, worried him and others at Lake George.
Foster, the USGS hydrologist, said lakes throughout New York and the nation are increasingly at risk for algal blooms.
“They seem to be on the rise everywhere,” he said.