Water Works

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series.

Warm temperatures are setting the stage for algal blooms on area lakes. Though not all algal blooms are dangerous, harmful blue-green algae garnish media attention each summer. Residents of Toledo, Ohio, were recently advised by health officials to avoid drinking their tap water after blue-green algae was found in the city’s water supply, which is drawn from Lake Erie. Locally, at least three recorded sightings of blue-green algae have been sighted in Chautauqua Lake since the beginning of June.

The national spotlight has cast significant attention on what will probably be remembered as “The Great Toledo Blue-Green Algae Scare of 2014”, which has raised many questions to those unfamiliar with this undesirable organism. What is blue-green algae? Where is it found and what time of year is it most prevalent? How does it spread? Is blue-green algae dangerous? These questions and many other issues will be addressed in this article and during the Chautauqua Lake Rally at the Village Casino in Bemus Point on Saturday, August 23, from 9 a.m. until noon.

Blue-green algae is a type of cyanobacteria, meaning it is a single-cell organism that is able to synthesize useful compounds like ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates out of nitrogen gas. They also synthesize toxins that can be harmful to the health of humans and animals. Blue-green algae can be yellow or brown, but it often looks similar to spilled green paint or very unappetizing green pea-soup. Small amounts of the organism are naturally present in lakes and streams, but if the water has a nasty appearance, you should think twice before jumping in.

In a July 22, 2014, press release, the Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services urged lake users to be cautious during algal blooms and emphasized that the real threat to public health from cyanobacteria occurs when people or pets drink or ingest water directly from a lake where blooms are present. Swimming in areas where the water contains high levels of toxin can cause skin irritation or other symptoms to those with high sensitivity. For more information about blue-green algae, visit the Health Department website at www.co.chautauqua.ny.us/243/Environmental-Health.

Needless to say, people and pets should never drink untreated surface water (especially if it resembles green pea soup) and should avoid swimming in waters with blue-green algal blooms.

The formation of blue-green algal blooms are quite complex. A number of variables, ranging from water and air temperature, to local agriculture practices, to lakeside sewer and septic systems, all play a role in the fostering of blue-green algae blooms. Perhaps the most important factor to understand is that blue-green algae thrives off of nitrogen and phosphorous, which emanate from fertilizers, untreated sewage and soil that is eroded from streambanks. Streams can carry nitrogen and phosphorus for hundreds of miles before depositing them in a larger body of water, making it difficult to monitor the exact location of numerous upstream agricultural and waste-management operations that can contribute to the prevalence of blue-green algae in downstream bodies of water. Wind, waves, and water currents can also transport algal blooms across large bodies of water.

Chautauqua Lake is not immune to the prevalence of blue-green algae. In fact, there have been numerous reports of blue-green algal blooms in the Lake over the past four summers. Lakewood Beach was closed on Aug. 1 after a bloom was spotted in its waters. Blue-green algal blooms were also spotted beneath the Chautauqua Lake Bridge in Bemus Point in late June and early July earlier this year, and the beach at Long Point State Park has been closed on multiple occasions for blue-green algal blooms over the past few years.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has developed a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorous in an attempt to regulate the amount of nutrients that can be discharged into Chautauqua Lake. The “Integrated Sewage Management Study”, which is currently being undertaken by O’Brien & Gere along with a group of local stakeholders consisting of Chautauqua County, the wastewater treatment plants and others via a State grant, aims at identifying the most cost effective, modern, productive, politically implementable and energy efficient solutions to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Chautauqua Lake from a number of sewage sources. An estimated 1,200 residences along the lake are still on septic systems; many of which are nearing the end of their lifespan and are leaching phosphorus and other nutrients into Chautauqua Lake. The TMDL also requires the four publicly owned treatment works around the lake to upgrade their infrastructure over the course of five years to reduce the phosphorus loading in Chautauqua Lake. This effort signifies Chautauqua County and New York state’s proactive approach to curbing the amount of phosphorus that is loaded into Chautauqua Lake.

Doug Conroe from the Chautauqua Lake Association will be discussing blue-green algae and O’Brien and Gere will be discussing the Sewer Integration Strategy during the Chautauqua Lake Rally at the Village Casino in Bemus Point on Saturday, Aug. 23, from 9 a.m. until noon. A number of other topics will be discussed at the rally, including the Goose Creek Stabilization Project, the Macrophyte Management Strategy, and the incorporation of the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance. Numerous lake-based organizations will also be at the event with information and people to answer questions.

The event is free and open to the public, and a small breakfast will be provided to attendees. For more information on the Chautauqua Lake Rally, contact Dave McCoy at 661-8915.