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Study: Algae blooms threaten drinking water, recreation

The Environmental Working Group released a report Wednesday that found hundreds of lakes across the U.S. — including some in the Adirondacks — have levels of toxic algae that far exceed drinking water standards.

The national advocacy organization says climate change is helping increase the number and severity of harmful algae blooms (HABs) across the country.

“Microcystins are poisonous toxins that can form in blooms of blue-green algae,” the EWG report says. “In recent years, algae blooms — actually microscopic bacteria called cyanobacteria — have erupted in hundreds of lakes nationwide, putting at risk Americans whose drinking water comes from those lakes, or who swim, ski or fish in them. If ingested, microcystins can cause adverse health effects in people and animals, ranging from skin rashes to serious illness and even death.”

Adirondack blooms

The state Department of Environmental Conservation takes citizen reports, in addition to regular monitoring, on potential algal blooms across the state. Ten blooms have been reported within the Blue Line this year, although only one of those was reported in the last two weeks.

The most recent bloom is on Otter Lake in the southwest part of the park, while seven have been reported along the shore of Lake Champlain. Other blooms were reported on Meacham Lake and Eagle Pond, both in the northern part of the park in Franklin County.

Otter Lake and Eagle Pond were both looked at as part of the EWG study. During sampling last summer, each lake was found to have levels of toxic microcystins — byproducts of what the DEC calls a harmful algae bloom — well above drinking water standards.

Otter Lake, which had an HAB reported in the past two weeks, saw a spike in microcystins in early September last year. EWG says that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of 4 micrograms per liter of micrcystins for recreational uses, but found during a sampling regime that microcystin levels in Otter Lake had risen to over 140 micrograms per liter.

Otter Lake has a history of HABs. A report from last year on WKTV in Utica said, “Health officials say exposure to the harmful blooms and toxins can result in the following symptoms: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, skin irritation, eye irritation, throat irritation, allergic reactions and breathing difficulties.”

Eagle Pond in northern Franklin County is another waterbody with perpetual algae blooms, and the EWG study found an average of more than 28 micrograms per liter of microcystins in the pond last year.

The EWG study looked at seven other locations in the Adirondacks — including Long Lake, Long Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area, and two sites on Lake Champlain — and found that levels of microcystins were below federal standards.

State blooms

Outside of the Adirondacks, New York has dozens of locations where microcystin levels exceed federal standards. At least one algae bloom was so bad that residents of Rushville, near Rochester, were told not to drink their tap water.

“Samples were collected by the Village of Rushville Public Water Supply showing a blue-green algae toxin called microcystin,” a report from RochesterFirst.com said last year. “It was found in drinking water delivered to consumers. The toxin was found in the water due to blue-green algae blooms occurring in Canandaigua Lake, which is the source of water for the Village of Rushville’s Public Water Supply.”

According to an interactive map that is part of the EWG report, the Finger Lakes routinely exceed microcystin levels, and many other waterbodies in the Mohawk and Hudson river valleys can have elevated levels as well.

Monitoring

The DEC monitors and tracks HAB reports across New York. While the department can issue a warning to the public, it does not have the authority to close off access to a lake or pond.

“People should avoid drinking the water and recreational activities such as boating and swimming,” DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald told the Enterprise last year after an HAB was reported in Barnum Pond, near Paul Smiths. “DEC recommends that both people and pets avoid contact with blooms.

“HABs are likely triggered by a combination of water and environmental conditions that may include excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), lots of sunlight, low-water or low-flow conditions, calm water, and warm temperatures,” she continued. “Depending on the weather and the characteristics of the lake, HABs may be short-lived (appearing and disappearing in hours) or long-lived (persisting for several weeks or more).”

Earlier this year, the DEC updated its HAB monitoring website to include a map that shows current and archived blooms.

“Most algae blooms are harmless. However, exposure to toxins and other substances from certain HABs can make people and animals sick,” a press release from the DEC said. “The increasing frequency and duration of HABs also threatens water quality and recreational use of waterbodies essential to ecosystem health and statewide tourism.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo also started an HAB initiative last year to develop comprehensive plans to respond to HABs on high profile lakes such as Lake Champlain and Lake Geoge.

To learn more about HABs in New York, including how to report a suspected HAB, go to www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/83310.html.