Far across Cayuga’s waters, 16 confirmed and 12 unconfirmed reports of harmful algal blooms, or HABs, have surfaced since July, and five confirmed cases since September alone, with the latest report announced as recently as Thursday.
While the closest confirmed 2018 HAB incident near Cornell is slightly less than five miles away from Day Hall according to Google Maps, water areas close to Cornell — including Stewart Park — are under close observation by a team of citizen scientists and organizations collaborating to monitor the lake.
According to the Community Science Initiative, HABs “can produce toxins that lead to sickness and even death in people and pets, and they have the potential to undermine Cayuga Lake as a source of drinking water and a desirable place to live or spend a vacation.”
HABs were first reported in Tompkins County in 2014, according to archives from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Since then, local groups have upped their efforts to monitor Cayuga Lake and test blooms for toxicity.
An update published by the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network on July 2 said that in 2017, “over 40 blooms were reported on Cayuga Lake, but only a fraction of those reported blooms were sampled and analyzed for toxins. This year, we are working together to track, understand, and ultimately manage this emerging threat.”
The CSI collaborated with Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, Discover Cayuga Lake, NYSDEC and the State University of New York Environmental School of Forestry to organize a group of about 70 trained volunteers — the HAB Harriers — to monitor and test suspicious spots for toxicity.
Since July, the HAB Harriers have taken over 35 samples from many locations spread around Cayuga, and reported the results in a publicly available map and database. The samples are tested for three parameters, including the algae’s species, total amount of chlorophyll a and level of the toxic compound microcystin.
Suspicious blooms of this summer were first reported on July 5, prompting the brief closure of the beach at Wells College Dock and Camp Caspar Gregory, though no microcystin, a compound highly toxic to fish and wildlife, but with few reported human fatalities, was found in either sample, according to CSI.
On September 4, four blooms were confirmed as above the allowable concentration of toxic blue-green algae following DEC testing, and a string of 8 blooms was reported on September 13th and 14th at various locations around the lake, with test results from CSI still pending.
“The big thing to emphasize is that these cyanobacteria have generally become more present over the past 10 years, in our observations. But they are usually at low levels.” Bill Foster, program director for Discover Cayuga Lake, said in an email to The Sun. “During the past 5 years, actual blooms have increased dramatically in the Finger Lakes.”
One cause for the increase in blooms cited by CSI and Cayuga Lake Water Network is higher air and water temperatures in the Ithaca area, which provide favorable conditions for cyanobacteria to thrive, The Sun previously reported.
Prof. Robert Howarth, David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, recently attained funding for a two-year study to assess other possible causes of algal blooms, which Howarth hypothesizes are caused by high nitrogen inputs from farmland surrounding the lake.
In the project proposal, Howarth said “until 3 years ago, cyanobacteria blooms in the Finger Lakes were confined to the most eutrophic (i.e., overly productive) lakes such as Owasco, but during the summer of 2017 major blooms occurred for the first time in both Cayuga and Skaneateles.”
The report also notes that both lakes provide drinking water for over 100,000 people, including Syracuse, which receives “unfiltered municipal water from Skaneateles.”
Despite higher reported incidents, however, some locals who spend a lot of time out on the lake report little difference visually. Captain Paul Flagg, who has been piloting boat tours on Cayuga Lake for five years, expressed familiarity with the blooms but no sightings this summer.
“It’s a blue-green basically, and it comes in fairly large amounts near the harbors and bays, and it’s toxic to dogs and cats,” Flagg said. “[This year] I have not seen much at all.”
Jim Smith recently moved to Ithaca and said that despite his frequent runs along the canal at the south end of Cayuga, “I haven’t seen any algae blooms or noticed anything out on the lake.”
The HAB Harriers will continue to monitor the lake, according to CSI spokesperson Claire Weston, who noted in a weekly HAB update that “from what we can tell, last year all of Cayuga Lake’s ‘confirmed with high toxins’ blooms were in September.”
Hilary Lambert, executive director of Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, said the deployment of the HAB Harriers this summer has “shortened the time that it takes for preliminary toxicity results to be reported back to locally concerned folks,” she wrote in an email to The Sun.