By Gwendolyn Craig
November’s reported harmful algal blooms weren’t the first confirmed in Lake George, officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation said this week. Another occurred in late October.
Jacqueline Lendrum, research scientist with the DEC, told the Lake George Park Commission that staff confirmed photographic evidence of a bloom on Oct. 23, blooms during the period of Nov. 7-10 and another bloom on Nov. 15.
Harmful algal bloom is another term for cyanobacteria. The photosynthesizing bacteria look very much like algae, often blue-green in color, and sometimes capable of producing liver toxins and neurotoxins harmful to people, pets and wildlife. The bacteria are naturally occurring in the environment, and are responsible for producing our oxygenated atmosphere.
But researchers have found when waters are warm and calm, the sun is shining and nutrients are available, the bacteria grow, bloom and congregate. Should the bloom be toxic, it’s a health hazard, and for a lake that is a drinking water source, the scare is a real one. It’s also a concern for pet owners. Dogs have died from jumping into a cyanobacteria bloom elsewhere and licking their fur after getting out of the water.
Lake George, historically a low-nutrient lake, has never had a documented bloom until this fall. Lendrum said the one on Oct. 23 is “not likely the first bloom that’s ever existed, but it certainly was more prevalent than we have seen before.”
Lab results of the bacteria show toxin levels were not detectable. Lendrum said that doesn’t mean there were no toxins present. It does mean that if there were toxins present, the levels were so low that existing technology could not measure them.
“Not being able to detect toxins should not give people false comfort that it’s therefore safe to drink untreated lake water, safe for dogs,” Lendrum said. “Even those small shoreline scums: know what they look like, keep your animals out of them, take a picture.”
DEC and partners are analyzing why the blooms may have occurred in the area of Assembly Point at the southern end of the lake. Lendrum said temperature profiling confirmed that Lake George’s water had turned over shortly before the blooms popped up. Lake turnover refers to the action when water at the top of a lake gets colder and denser and sinks to the bottom.
“It’s pretty cold right now, so hopefully we don’t see anything else,” Lendrum said.
The DEC is in the process of organizing a meeting with interested parties to consider hypotheses for why Lake George had blooms and to go over the results of the cyanobacteria tests.
To view a photo gallery of what harmful algal blooms look like, go to dec.ny.gov/chemical/81962.html.
Many homeowners and businesses around Lake George draw their drinking water directly from the lake, relying on in-home systems to treat it. But not all systems are equipped to treat cyanobacteria toxins, and Park Commissioner Bill Mason asked Lendrum what he should do about that. He also asked whether there was an alert system for people around the lake.
Lendrum directed Mason to the New York Harmful Algal Bloom Notifications System, though that online database is removed for maintenance at the end of October. Lendrum said DEC is assessing whether to keep it live longer, considering the late-season blooms on Lake George. The database is usually live from May through October and is updated at least on a daily basis with potential blooms to confirmed blooms.
Lendrum also directed Mason and others to the state Department of Health guidelines for drinking water directives. Those guidelines do not recommend drinking untreated water from a lake.
Cathy LaBombard, a park commissioner, asked why the DEC did not take a reading of what the nutrient levels were in Lake George when they examined the blooms. Nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen, are the main diet of cyanobacteria.
Lendrum said “those aren’t the types of studies … you run out and do in an emergency situation.” Partner environmental organizations around the lake have data studying nutrient levels over time, Lendrum said.
And that’s one of the reasons the blooms on Lake George are so confounding. The same thing happened on Skaneateles Lake in Onondaga County in 2017. Both lakes are low in nutrients, and some of the cleanest water bodies in the country. Still, both have now had cyanobacteria blooms.
‘It’s really that calmness that seems to maybe have been the trigger, and it’s not unlike the calmness that we saw in Skaneateles in the fall of 2017,” Lendrum said.
This led to discussion about septic systems around the lake. LaBombard said she looked forward to hearing the DEC’s hypotheses, adding that “it just upsets me to a point where nobody wants to bring up the word nutrients from septic systems.”
LaBombard pointed to research by lake groups indicating that a number of septic systems need upgrading.
“Maybe they are failing,” LaBombard said. “To me, it just would not have been a very difficult thing to have taken some kinds of readings to find out if there is indeed an overload of nutrients in some of those areas.”
Carol Collins, of a local group called the Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition and the former chairwoman of the Fund for Lake George, said a spike in nutrients does increase the growth of cyanobacteria.
“I don’t disagree,” Lendrum said. “But it’s going to be more complicated than that for Lake George, just like for Skaneateles Lake because they are very clean systems. … The harmful algal blooms are proving to be challenging that and finding them in these low-nutrient systems is something we are going to be battling.”