Toxic algae that caused the death of two dogs in Elmira and landed an Ithaca resident in the hospital with double pneumonia last summer is back and more widespread than ever, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Blooming in Seneca Lake, this toxic algae, deadly to animals and harmful to humans, can cause vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, allergic reactions or difficulty breathing.
“Avoid all contact, keep pets and children out of the water and don’t use the water for any purpose,” Dr. Rebecca Gorney from the DEC said in an interview with 18 News.
Late last year, harmful algal blooms, or HABs, infected Owasco Lake, the drinking water provider for Cayuga County, and infiltrated the water supply, though the DEC ruled that the water was still safe to drink, The Auburn reported.
Andrew Zepp ’85, executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust — which Zepp himself created while earning a MPS degree from Cornell — worries Cayuga Lake will be the next to be infected.
“Five of 11 finger lakes have experienced outbreaks during the past few years,” he said. “While Cayuga has not had one, there is concern it might in [the] future.”
But staying out of infested waters is not always enough to avoid the harmful effects of these blooms. HABs can cause prolonged damage to large populations, as they did in Toledo, Ohio, where the algae left 500,000 citizens without drinking water, according to EcoWatch.
HABs are most visible on hot, still days. But because it is difficult to distinguish these toxic algae from non-harmful algae, the DEC is warning residents against going near any bodies of water with algal blooms of any kind.
“[HABs] can have a whole variety of appearances. They can be clumps or streaks, or, when they’re really dense, they look actually like green paint spilled on the water,” Gorney said. “We recommend if people see any of these blooms on the water that they avoid using [it].”
In response to the increase in outbreaks, the DEC established a Finger Lakes Water Hub in October 2016. Composed of scientists and policy makers, the team will “address Finger Lakes water quality issues,” a group statement read.
The statement also announced a $600,000 initiative to “study algal blooms and undertake pollution reduction projects in the Owasco Lake watershed.”
Motivated by the outbreaks, some citizens have decided to work with the DEC and other lake associations to locate and identify the toxic blooms.
“We ask [these volunteers] to take pictures and document the blooms,” Gorney said. “They’ve been trained on how to collect the samples.”
Volunteer Alan Kiehle is particularly worried about the safety of his family.
“We have three grandchildren that like to come and swim in the lake,” he said to 18 News. “For sure we want to keep an eye on things and hopefully the lake will be kept clean for everyone.”
The DEC has asked for residents to report suspected algal blooms at 518-402-8179.