New York Sets Out to Fight Algal Bloom

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made headway in the fight against harmful algal blooms (HABs) throughout New York State.

In his State of the State address in December, Cuomo proposed a $65 million investment to combat the blooms in Upstate New York that affect recreational swimming as well as consumption of drinking water.

HABs are caused by an excess of cyanobacteria in water. They are most commonly present in water that has been exposed to prolonged heat, during droughts where the water isn’t flowing, or when it contains an excess of nutrients.

Cuomo also implemented four summits throughout New York, the first of which was held at SUNY New Paltz on Feb. 27, featuring national and state experts in the put forth action plans to combat the ongoing issue.

Four lakes in the Hudson Valley out of 12 altogether were monitored in testing for algal bloom to gain a better understanding of the issue. 

Putnam Lake, Palmer Lake and Lake Carmel in Putnam County as well as the Monhagen Reservoir in the city of Middletown have all been affected by HABs.

Putnam Lake has suffered more than 30 weeks of documented HAB outbreaks since 2012. Lake Carmel suffered 18 weeks of HAB outbreaks, resulting in more than 30 days of beach closures in 2017. Palmer Lake suffered its first HAB outbreak in 2017, despite high nutrient and algae levels the Monhagen Reservoir has suffered from HABs.

“To me, HABs are God’s way of saying, ‘Pay attention, I mean really pay attention and pay attention now,” Cuomo said Tuesday. “Harmful algal blooms are poison, they are toxic. It’s not a bunch of weeds that are floating and it’s unsightly and it’s a cosmetic issue. These are poisons and toxins, and they’re growing at a frightening rate.”

“In 2015, there were 35 cases in the State of New York, in the entire state. In 2016, we’ve got HABs in drinking water, the drinking water supply, which now takes it to a new level. In 2017, 100 beaches close because of HABs. In just two years, they went from a sporadic issue to a major consequential issue.”

Cuomo went on to talk about how algal blooms are detrimental to tourism and recreation, as well as drinking water. 

“If you have lakes where you can’t fish, you have lakes where you can’t swim,” he said. “That would be a major economic problem. Worse than that, many of these lakes are sources of drinking water and once you have a polluted or dangerous source of drinking water, you have a real problem.”

While not all algal blooms are harmful, some are. In humans, HABs can cause illness and even death in rare cases. This can come from drinking affected water, eating foods or coming into contact it with it on an external level.

Ecologically, HABs can make mammals, fish and birds sick or even kill them due to the degrading water quality. Lastly, they affect economics and aesthetics by decreasing tourism and property values, commercial fishing losses and increased drinking water treatment costs. 

Dan Shapley is the Water Quality Program Director at Hudson Valley environmental group Riverkeeper. He reiterated that not all algal blooms are harmful and they aren’t  always present in a body of water. However, he said that when the water is sickly green, it should be avoided. 

To provide solutions on an individual and local level, Shapley touched upon a couple ways to combat the issue. 

“If you have a lawn, question if you need to use fertilizer for it,” he said. “If you do, use fertilizer that doesn’t contain phosphorus.

Phosphorus is high in nutrients, which is present in many cases of algal blooms.

Shapley also said that it is important to maintain septic systems properly.

“Septic systems, particularly those that are failing, unmaintained or are poorly designed, can be a source of nutrients that cause algal blooms,” he said. “People who have septic systems should routinely maintain them.”

Finally, he said that individuals can make a difference by putting cost into context if a local sewage treatment plan needs upgrades.