Photo posted by the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Summer has officially begun, which means that now is the time that algal blooms are brought to the attention of the public who may want to visit local bodies of water that may or may not contain harmful blooms.

Sustainable Finger Lakes hosted a panel with presentations discussing the different negative outcomes of the blooms and different ways to address and minimize harm caused by them.

Jessica Swindon, chair of the Sustainable Finger Lakes board of directors, gave an overview of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Finger Lakes, explaining that increased stormwater runoff, housing developments and industrial development have contributed to the problem.

“The frequency is going up every year, and it’s linked to a number of factors, including increased monitoring, population growth, changes in land use and, overarching all of that is a warming climate that comes with higher intensity rain events,” Swindon said.

Rain events swiftly flush whatever is sitting on the land directly into the lakes, so instead of letting a natural filtration process take place, nutrients that would benefit the soil end up wreaking havoc in the water in the form of HABs.

Rain events are not the only issue, and unfortunately, Swindon said, humans contribute significantly to the harmful outbreaks, leading to fewer opportunities for the population in terms of safe bodies of water to swim in and enjoy.

Ultimately, Swindon said, the cost of HABs is greater than what tax-payer dollars can fund despite additional state and federal support in the past.

Degrading septic systems are another issue contributing to HAbs because the older systems let out more nutrients than they should, and are especially problematic along shorelines near older properties in cities and towns where there are more paved surfaces, apartment complexes and other industrially developed areas.

The runoff causes nutrient pollution that runs off directly into the lakes, which feeds the harmful blooms.

One way to combat urban land use and solve some of the runoff problems is increasing green infrastructure projects such as rain barrels, rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs, no-mow areas and better roadside drainage ditches.

Hilary Lambert, former director of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, said that there is no overarching national effort to address HABs, despite the fact that outbreaks of human illnesses result from the algal exposure.

As an example of how problematic outbreaks can be, Lambert used an example from 2014 when Toledo experienced a severely HABs-contaminated public water supply that left more than 400,000 residents without water for three days — “This example pinpoints the social justice aspect of obtaining clean water,” she said.

After an investigation, it was discovered that the outbreak was a result of manure runoff from unregulated factor farms that poisoned the public water supply. Though this situation is different than the risk in the Finger Lakes, Lambert said, she wanted to use it as a cautionary tale of what can happen if close attention isn’t paid to the problem.

Brett Chedzoy, owner of a 500-acre grazing farm and educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, shared some community-based solutions applicable in the Finger Lakes.

“We don’t want to be the farm that’s putting nutrients into this watershed — everything we do on our farm is really focused on trying to keep the maure and nutrients from hay up on the farm where it’s doing some good to net downstream,” Chedzoy said.

One of the mechanisms the farm uses is silvopasturing, which is pastoring animals on productive pastures with functional trees and a mix of herbivores to expand the agroforestry systems and allow a synergistic landscape. “Some of these other benefits include enhanced animal welfare and nutrition, and then the ability to use a livestock workforce to better manage invasive vegetation,” he said.

“This is an issue that is tied to global climate change,” said Max Heitner of Finger Lakes Land Trust, citing issues of increased rainfall that leads to erosion and sedimentation making its way into the Finger Lakes.

Invasive species also aggregate the algal blooms, which impact the overall water quality in terms of what recreational uses are safe.

Gay Nicholson of the Sustainable Finger lakes said that the investment of federal and state funds can greatly help in addressing the issues that result from HABs outbreaks. In closing, Nicholson said that using cleaning supplies with fewer chemicals, phosphate-free soaps and detergents and only running full washing loads are ways that the general public can help reduce runoff.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...