Schumer wants funding to address toxic algae blooms in Upstate lakes

Recently, Upstate New York’s Lakes—Including Prominent Drinking Water Sources From Great Lakes To Finger Lakes—Have Been Infected By Toxic Algal Blooms

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today announced major progress in his effort to curb the rampancy of harmful algal blooms (HABs), which continue to damage the health and vitality of lakes across Upstate New York, threatening communities, some drinking water sources and outdoor recreation economies in the process. First, in the bipartisan appropriations package for Fiscal Year 2020, Schumer secured $24 million in federal funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Aquatic Plant Control Program (APCP) and $16 million in federal funding for the Aquatic Nuisance Research Program (ANRP), both of which operate pilot programs designed to better combat and understand the spread of HABs in certain freshwater bodies. Additionally, Schumer fought to include language in the spending package encouraging the USACE to explore opportunities to address HABs in Upstate New York’s Great Lakes (Lake Erie and Lake Ontario), given the historic water levels in the region.

However, Schumer said that more must be done to control these destructive algal blooms, considering that they can produce fatal toxins if ingested by people, aquatic life and even pets like cats and dogs. Throughout 2019, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) HAB tracker, New York received over 1,130 HAB reports, any of which could be doing serious damage to the natural ecosystems they exist in and the surrounding communities.

“Now that we have secured a significant funding boost for the Army Corps’ anti-algal blooms programs, I am urging the Army Corps to make New York the top priority when expanding harmful algal blooms pilot programs in 2020, “ said the Democratic Senate Leader.

“The toxic algae blooms that are infecting lakes across Upstate New York not only threaten local communities, drinking water sources, ecosystems and public health, but also hurt our local outdoor economics by closing beaches and limiting recreational activities. Our Upstate lakes may have suffered well over 1,000 of these harmful algal blooms just this year—they are being plagued, and require federal help to implement a cure,” said Senator Schumer. “That’s why in the bipartisan spending package I fought to secure two significant funding boosts for the Army Corps of Engineers programs designed to combat harmful algal blooms, and am now urging it to spend some of that funding on New York’s waterways. To successfully battle the blooms, New York is going to need the Army Corps’ expertise and support.”

In recent years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has operated successful pilot programs designed to better combat and understand the spread of HABs in certain freshwater lakes across the United States, for example, Lake Okeechobee in Florida, under the ANRP and the APCP. However, none of these programs are currently in place anywhere in New York State.

According to NYSDEC, there have been at least 160 HABs reported in the Hudson Valley this year; at least 60 reported in the Capital Region; at least 220 reported in Central New York; at least 260 in the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region; at least 100 in Western New York; and at least 95 in the Southern Tier.

Schumer said that USACE operates a number of successful HAB-combatting pilot programs under ANRP and APCP. Schumer explained that while ANRP traditionally focused on the control of larger invasive species, like Asian Carp, that changed when the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2019 was signed into law and the program’s budget was boosted from $675,000 to $3 million. Schumer highlighted how this budget increase came with language urging USACE to use the funding to develop better strategies for the detection, prevention, and management of HABs. Focusing on bolstering our understanding of HABs, USACE under ANRP established five different pilot programs:

  1. The Harmful Algal Bloom Interception, Treatment & Transformation System (HABITATS) program. By forcing the algae to the surface with oxygen bubbles, the HABITATS program allows researchers to skim the algae off the water, collect it, remove nutrients from the water, and even recycle the waste into energy;
  2. The Operational Strategies for HAB Management in Inland Reservoirs program is developing guidance, as not all waterbodies can be treated the same, and reservoirs present unique challenges. This pilot program aims to effectively utilize reservoir operational activities to address HABs, such as flushing or holding water;
  3. The Evaluation of a Peroxide-based Algaecide for HAB Control in Lake Okeechobee is another HAB-combatting strategy. According to the USACE, this will ultimately yield best management practices for using peroxide-based chemicals to eliminate HABs;
  4. The Harmful Algal Bloom Dynamics program studies the drivers and life cycle patterns of HAB events. They completed their first round of this program in Lake Okeechobee, Florida this year; and
  5. The Harmful Algal Bloom Indicator Estimation in Small-inland Waterbodies: Remote Sensing-based Tools to Assist USACE Water Quality Monitoring program. Schumer explained that different from the previous program, this is focused on developing early detection methods that are based on water quality indicators. If successful, this could allow communities to respond to HABs in the very early stages, decreasing the danger they present to communities.

Furthermore, under APCP, USACE operates two pilot programs dedicated to predicting HAB outbreaks and controlling them:

  1. The Strategies for Early Detection of HABs and Predicting Toxic Release: Linking Hyperspectral Imaging to Molecular Techniques program is utilizing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) cameras and water quality indicators together to predict both the emergence of HABs and the toxicity of the outbreaks; and
  2. The Small Regulatory Ribonucleic Acids (srRNAs) for HAB Control program is working to stop algae’s growth by inhibiting the algae’s ability to absorb nutrients, or photosynthesize, through an innovative gene silencing technique. If successful, this could stop outbreaks in their tracks, or from ever occurring.

Schumer argued that any one or more of these pilot programs could play a major role in helping to cure the plague of HABs across Upstate New York.  And specifically, he urged USACE to extend them to the following lakes:

Skaneateles Lake: For 123 years Skaneateles Lake has been an exceptionally clean drinking water source for currently 200,000 people in Onondaga County, New York. The highest of the Finger Lakes, Skaneateles Lake covers three counties at 16 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, with a maximum depth of 315 feet. In addition to approximately 2,000 year-round residences along the lakeshore and a booming tourism industry, 45% of the watershed is used for agriculture. Once the cleanest Finger Lake and the second cleanest lake in the United States, Skaneateles lost these titles in 2017 when a HAB outbreak was discovered in the lake’s water intake pipe. During that outbreak surface water tests showed levels of algae toxins nine times higher than what the State Department of Environmental Conservations considers high levels. This HAB lasted for weeks, even stretching into October. HABs returned in 2018, with confirmed HABs on 9/13/18, 9/14/18, 9/16/18, 9/27/18, and 10/8/18. Despite research by scientists, meetings with elected officials, and new funding, HABs yet again returned in 2019 with confirmed HABs on 9/2/19, 9/9/19, and 9/21/19, and a number of suspicious blooms in September and October.  In May 2019, the U.S. Geological Survey and New York state installed new technology that detects changing water conditions which could indicate the early stages of HAB formation. This technology is not only an early warning system but it also helps researchers gain a better understanding of HABs so they can develop treatment and preventive options. This or other technology could aid in preventing the spread of HABs in Skaneateles Lake.

Conesus Lake: Conesus Lake is a major drinking water source for approximately 20,000 residents in Livingston County, New York. As the westernmost Finger Lake, Conesus is a major tourism driver for the area, promoting fishing, boating, swimming, and other recreational activities. Conesus Lake is one of the most heavily and densely populated Finger Lakes, with the majority or residents living year-round. Unfortunately Conesus Lake suffers from frequent HAB occurrences. A 2018 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) report showed that Conesus had 13 observed HABs outbreaks since 2013, resulting in 46 lost beach days and associated beach revenue. Additionally, in 2019 there have been 6 HAB occurrences. Frequent HAB outbreaks, combined with the presence of excessive nutrients like phosphorus, have led to Conesus being designated as an “Impaired Waterbody.” Conesus is also one of the shallower Finger Lakes with a maximum depth of 66 feet.

Lake George: Dubbed the “Queen of American Lakes” by Thomas Jefferson, Lake George has immense historical standing and is a key driver of New York’s upstate economy accounting for 42 percent of the region’s tourism sales. Indeed, Adirondack tourism is a $1.4 billion industry supporting over 21,300 jobs. Lake George is also classified as an AA special water body suitable for drinking. New York has listed Lake George as high-risk for algae bloom, which would be devastating to the tourism industry. A recent study by the Jefferson Project showed algae growth in part of Lake George and scientists pointed to nutrient levels and fears that HABs could become an occurrence in Lake George.

Seneca Lake: The largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes, Seneca is a source of drinking water for nearly 100,000 people, as well as a driver of the regional economy. Seneca is surrounded by more than 50 wineries—as a result, the lake is a regular location for tourist activities, increasing the possibility of HAB exposure to humans and pets. This year marks the fifth year in a row that cyanobacteria have been confirmed in Seneca Lake, with at least 24 separate blooms reported in September 2019 alone. According to NYSDEC, on September 8, 2019 there were multiple reports of HABs with confirmed high levels of toxicity.

Chautauqua Lake: Used by lake residents and visitors as a source of drinking water, and the most important economic asset for the surrounding area, Chautauqua Lake has experienced more than 298 reported HAB occurrences since 2012. Alarmingly, there were 82 confirmed HABs in 2017 with 14 confirmed as highly toxic. Since 2017, these HAB outbreaks have caused 22 beach closures and led to a total of 286 lost beach days. With 1,515 commercial farms, 15,500 acres of grapes, and eight wineries, recent studies have shown that pesticide run-off is a contributing factor to HABs. These HABs have a major impact on local community as there are 14 municipalities that are within Chautauqua Lake’s watershed – all economically dependent on the lake. This lake is listed as a National Historic Landmark, a huge draw for tourists, and it is consistently plagued by HABs. In the Water Resources Development Act of 2018, I was pleased to authorize a study of Harmful Algal Blooms at this lake. Now the time has come to allocate funding to begin study of this alarming environmental, health, and economic problem.

Canandaigua Lake: As a drinking water source for approximately 70,000 people, Canandaigua Lake has 21,000 people living along the Lake’s shoreline. The fourth largest of the Finger Lakes is 15.5 miles long, 1.1 miles wide, and 276 feet deep at its deepest point. In 2019 alone, Canandaigua Lake had 35 reported HAB occurrences which led to the closure of public swimming areas and private beaches. As with Seneca Lake, these HABs continue to be a blight on the community.

Owasco Lake: As a drinking water source for approximately 44,000 people, Owasco is the sixth largest of the Finger Lakes at 1.3 miles wide and 11.1 miles long with a maximum depth of 177 feet. Due to its shallow nature, the lake is a popular tourist spot in the summer as the water tends to warm up early and stay warm longer into the year.  This tourist draw has been dampened in recent years as HABs have become a public health risk for the lake. For example, in 2016, HABs were detected in treated drinking water from Owasco Lake for the first time.  HABs were detected along the shoreline of the lake in 2017, 2018, and this year.

Honeoye Lake: With over 100 confirmed HABs since 2012, Honeoye Lake has felt the negative impacts of HABs on its tourism industry. The lake is a popular destination for boating, swimming, and other recreational activities, but HABs have led to over 100 lost beach days. With 24 HAB outbreaks reported in 2019, HABs have become a regular occurrence at the lake.

Croton Falls Reservoir: This reservoir is part of the New York City watershed and a source of water for NYC, home to over 8.5 million people. As a reservoir that has been plagued by HABs, this could be a possible location to test ANSRP’s Operational Strategies for HAB Management in Inland Reservoirs program.

Due to a number of factors, including nitrogen pollution from sources like older wastewater systems and the amount of phosphorus in waterways throughout New York, the occurrence of large harmful algal blooms has been increasing.  Experts say climate change has also brought warmer temperatures and more spring rainfall, both of which favor the growth of harmful algae blooms. According to the EPA, red tides and blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, also known as harmful algal blooms, have severe impacts on human health, aquatic ecosystems, and the economy.

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