ITHACA, N.Y. – The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has confirmed the presence of harmful algal blooms (HABs) on the southern end of Cayuga Lake; several blooms have been reported on the shoreline since mid-July, forcing temporary closures among lake access ways.

According to the New York State Department of Health, HABs – primarily blue-green in color – are a toxic microscopic organism which forms dense blooms on the water surface and often resembles a paint-like quality.

The Tompkins County Health Department has received multiple reports from visitors and residents of the lake, noting the widespread presence of the blooms throughout the lake according to Samantha Hillson, Public Information Officer at the Tompkins County Health Department.

“It’s really only visually identified, and we’re receiving constant reports from citizens reporting the blooms,” she said. “It sounds like it is fairly widespread from reports from people out on the lake over the weekend – it’s not just on the shoreline or in very still areas, which is what you would normally see, so that is a concern.”

Related: DEC monitoring suspicious algae blooms in Cayuga Lake

According to the DEC, HABs typically form in still, nutrient-rich bodies of water during calm and hot weather. However, Hillson said the tumultuous weather forecast this summer may have had an impact on the formation of the blooms in the lake.

“It actually has a lot to do with the rain and the runoff it has created which is now coming into the lake,” Hillson said.  “In our case, it’s the imbalance of nutrients which is causing the blooms – the runoff is rich in phosphorus.”

People can be exposed to the algae toxins in various ways, including swimming, boating or fishing in areas with the presence of blooms, according to the NYS Department of Health. Hillson said the hazards are most severe when water that has been in contact with a bloom is ingested. Symptoms may include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties occur after drinking or having contact with blooms or untreated surface water.

Hillson said pets, especially dogs, are most impacted by the side-effects of the blooms, as they often lick their coats after swimming. Pet owners are urged by the health department to keep their pets away from water experiencing algae blooms. If animals ingest the toxins either through drinking or cleaning their fur after exposure, they can become sick quickly, according to the health department. 

“Dogs and any other domestic animal should really avoid the water if blooms are visually identified,” Hillson said.

Hillson said the municipal water supply is currently not at risk of contamination and there is no treatment plan in place for the lake at this point. However, she noted that the health department was working on alerting residents with private drinking wells or beach wells to monitor their water daily.

While it does sound like there are some treatments for smaller bodies of water, they may not be suitable options for our lake,” Hillson said, adding that the DEC would be responsible for any treatment plans if required. “The health department’s stance is really focused on the safety of the public, especially in regards to drinking water – if for some reason this could impact our drinking supply, the health department would be more involved,  but we are not concerned for the municipal drinking water at this time.” 

Multiple public and private beaches have been closed on the shore due to the presence of algae blooms. The DEC has received reports from the Ithaca Yacht Club, Myers Point and Taughannock Park indicating the presence of blooms in the water. Currently, the beach at the Ithaca Yacht Club and Taughannock Falls State park are the only state regulated beaches in Tompkins County that are currently closed to access. Hillson said there may be other private locations that have been closed by property owners.

“Any beaches that are closed will re-open with a safe clean water sample analysis,” Hillson said. “It’s the middle of summer and all these places are hoping to re-open.” 

At this time, Hillson said that while the blooms are widespread throughout the lake, the health department is not discouraging recreational activities in areas where blooms are not visible or in the vicinity or any given activity.

While the DEC is still monitoring the situation across the lake, visitors and residents are still asked to be aware of what they’re looking for and continue to report it to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and submit a Suspicious Algal Bloom Report Form with photos, which can be found here. Report any HAB-related health symptoms to the NYS Health Department at harmfulalgae@health.ny.gov, or call the Tompkins County Health Department at (607) 274-6604.

Featured image courtesy of Dustin Patte. Algae blooms on the southern end of the lake. 

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.