State, Local Officials Are Working Together To Address Algal Blooms
By ELIZABETH COOPER
Earlier this month, a press release from Glimmerglass State Park announced Otsego Lake’s first toxic algae bloom of 2023.
Though it soon proved to be a false alarm, it sent a ripple of anxiety through the surrounding community.
Last August many local lake access points were repeatedly shuttered for swimming and even boaters in the middle of the lake were advised not to plunge into the refreshing waters of Glimmerglass.
Since last year, questions have swirled about the future of the lake. Could it one day be off limits for the entire summer? Might local children be deprived of the many great joys of lakeside life? What might become of businesses that rely on the lake? And property values? Can anything be done?
The answers to those questions remain unknown, but local and state officials are working on ways to tackle the problem.
In the short term, there may be methods of working around the presence of the blooms by better testing. Meanwhile, grant applications are in progress so funds will be in place to study the situation and implement new plans.
Whatever is learned, it’s likely that the toxic algae blooms will continue into the foreseeable future, even as experts work to control them.
“We are most likely going to have blooms this summer,” Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh said, noting, “If in 30 years the Great Lakes haven’t resolved how to prevent them, it will take us a while to implement changes to reduce or eliminate them.”
Otsego Lake isn’t the only water body facing this problem.
Lakes across New York State have battled the algae for years, and according to a state Department of Environmental Conservation database, there have been at least 15 confirmed reports in the past two weeks alone. Many are downstate, but a few are not far from here. Bradley Brook Reservoir in Madison County, Whitney Point Reservoir in Broome County and Otisco Lake in Onondaga County are among them.
A statewide action committee has been formed out of stakeholders from communities with larger lakes than ours, Tillapaugh said. There is broad understanding of the effects on tourism and recreation-related businesses in lake communities.
“Local numbers for potential economic damage haven’t been tabulated yet,” Tillapaugh said.
But she called the potential impact on recreation “devastating.”
“If we start losing our lakes you are going to see a phenomenal loss in tourism revenue,” she said. “And a major economic loss to our region.”
Drinking water in some seasonal camps may also be in jeopardy.
Although the Village of Cooperstown has a state compliant treatment plant and tests daily, many properties along the lake simply run a line into the water and treat it with in-home systems that Tillapaugh fears may not be sufficient to provide safe water.
State officials say they are ready to help.
“Safeguarding New York’s water quality continues to be a top priority and DEC is providing direct assistance to effectively respond to harmful algae blooms,” a state DEC statement in response to “Freeman’s Journal” questions said. “DEC and New York State Department of Health scientists and experts are working closely with state and local partners to investigate the causes of HABs across New York and are pioneering cutting edge solutions to respond to these blooms and the threats they pose to public health and the environment.
Still, there will likely be a competitive application process for the assistance, and those funds may not cover all the work that needs to be done, so local governments and organizations will likely have to contribute as well.
Our unique lake
Because Otsego Lake is the water supply for communities surrounding it, plans to ensure its watershed is as clean as possible have been in place since the mid-1990s. The planning document was updated in 2007, but not since. Those plans have done a great deal to prevent or delay the conditions that cause harmful algae blooms. Septic systems along the lake and its tributaries were checked and repaired if necessary. Businesses that might cause harmful runoff, such as farms and golf courses, were also assessed and told to make changes if issues were found. The lake became cleaner, and officials say that’s part of the reason Otsego was free of toxic algae longer than some other lakes in the state.
Still, with increases in tourism bringing greater use at some lakeside homes, camps and recreational venues, some septic systems may need to be assessed again.
And another wildcard has entered the picture in recent years.
Invasive species including zebra and quagga mussels now line vast swaths of the lake bottom and are causing the ecosystem to change. Climate change is also likely playing a role, officials said.
“The whole ecosystem is slightly out of whack,” Tillapaugh said.
Now she and other local officials say it’s time to update the watershed plan again so it can address these new circumstances.
“The problem we have now isn’t necessarily due to sediment or nutrients coming into the lake,” said Doug Willies, a member of the Otsego Lake Watershed Committee.
He also noted that the invasive mussels were filtering so many nutrients out of the water that it is clearer than ever before.
“The recurrence of blooms and the absence of excess nutrients? That shouldn’t happen, so there’s the quandary,” he said. “What is causing the cyanobacteria to benefit and populate to the extent that you have a bloom?”
The new plan will be based on what is learned from studying this issue. It will look at both what’s happening on the land surrounding the lake and the ecosystem of the lake itself, and then make recommendations on what to do.
The price tag to create the plan? It could be as high as $500,000.00.
Local officials are applying for state and federal grants, but they may have to be partially matched locally, officials said. Key deadlines are mid-summer.
What is the algae?
The algae found in Otsego Lake last year contained a potentially harmful type of cyanobacteria, known as microcystis.
Exposure to the toxins that may be produced by these cyanobacteria can affect the liver and cause nausea and gastrointestinal problems.
Cyanobacteria can look different ways. Sometimes it is a yellowish green layer on top of the water, but it can also appear as whitish foam or may even appear red, she said. It can also have a blue-green or pea-soup color as well, but Otsego Lake didn’t have that last year.
It also may make the water appear cloudy, said Dr. Kiyoko Yokota, an associate professor of biology at SUNY Oneonta who is involved in the effort to help the lake and is the president of the North American Lake Management Society.
Regular testing by BFS for the most common type of the cyanotoxins has been in place in certain locations. Last year, those results provided guidelines on water use. This year, the testing equipment is being upgraded, thanks to funds raised locally along with a grant from the Clark Foundation.
Still, the blooms may come and go so quickly that results should only be treated as a general indicator of the presence of the toxin at the location of the sample collection, Yokota said.
“Conditions can change in a very short amount of time,” she said. “We record blooms and report them (to the DEC), but most likely there are instances of them popping up and disappearing without us knowing.”
There are other cyanotoxins that affect the nervous system, including the brain. A sample sent to a comprehensive testing center did not find any other cyanotoxins than the microcystins, Yokota said.