NY has leg up on algae bloom battle

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

New York had the most laboratory confirmed algae bloom warnings of any state since May, according to a new report.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Empire State has the biggest problem with the toxic nuisance.

Blooms are in lakes, rivers and streams across the country. Without nationwide monitoring, there’s a “haphazard state-by-state approach,” the report concludes. In other words, some states test regularly and other states test very little, if at all.

The blooms, often called blue-green algae, consist of bacteria that produce toxins. Runoff from farms that use fertilizers containing phosphorous are one of the chief sources of the blooms.

The joint report by Resource Media and the National Wildlife Federation states that New York has one of the strongest algae bloom monitoring programs in the country. The Department of Environmental Conservation sends out weekly algae bloom updates and provides a form residents can fill out if they spot a suspected bloom.

“They are just very proactive here,” said Greg Boyer, director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium at State University of New York. “That means we get a lot of positive samples because we look. We’ll run easily 2,000 tests for this summer. That’s a lot of data to find something.”

Resource Media developed an interactive map for all of the reported algae bloom warnings from May 5 and Sept. 16.

New York issued 50 algae bloom warnings during that timeframe. That’s more than double what Kansas reported (18). The map shows the warnings closest to the Buffalo area occurred in Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa and in Chautauqua Lake.

The discovery of the blue-green algae in Presque Isle came as quite a surprise to Pennsylvania environmental regulators.

“That water is relatively shallow and behaves as a separate embankment,” Boyer said about Presque Isle.

There’s been a lot of talk and media attention lately on the risk these blooms pose to the eastern basin of Lake Erie in the Buffalo area.

Experts at a conference in Maumee Bay, Ohio, this July did not think the eastern basin would ever see algae blooms as bad as they are in Ohio.

Why?

To survive the algae need sunlight, calm and shallow water and nutrients. The algae has what Boyer describes as tiny air bags that allow them to reach the bottom to grab phosphorous and nitrogen and return to the top to soak up sunlight.

Boyer said the western basin of Lake Erie is about 20 feet deep on average, making it very easy for the algae to bloom.

Here in the eastern basin, depths reach 300 feet.

“There is no way that algae can get down to the bottom and get back up,” he said.