Human activities impacting spread
Area residents can make a difference when it comes to blue-green algae blooms, which can be toxic to humans and animals.
This past summer, the blooms were found on a widespread level on both Chautauqua and Findley lakes, according to the County Department of Health and Human Services. Blue-green algae blooms, also known as cyanobacteria blooms, were found in both the north and south basins of Chautauqua Lake, while blooms were found throughout Findley Lake.
While the issue is not new in Chautauqua County, it pays to be informed and to monitor one’s own activities in the watershed, said County Executive-elect George Borrello.
Borrello said he took an interest in the lakes and waterways early on in his tenure as a county legislator and has devoted a lot of time to understand blue-green algae. While it may seem like a local problem, Borrello said there have also been issues in Ohio as well.
“It’s truly a problem, especially in the Great Lakes,” he said.
He said run-off from farms that increases the phosphorus levels in the bodies of water causes an ideal situation for blue-green algae to bloom. At one time, the blooms actually shut down the water supply in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014. Borrello said thousands of people were without water.
When those in Chautauqua County have water issues, a simple directive can often be given to boil the water to make it usable, Borrello said.
However, in the case of a blue-green algae bloom, toxins are released as the algae dies. “If you boil it, you make it toxic,” Borrello said.
While the blue-green algae and other algae can exist in lakes naturally, the overabundance which causes the problem is “largely man-made,” according to Borrello.
“It’s a process that is natural that is exacerbated by man,” he said.
Courtney Wigdahl-Perry, an assistant professor of biology at State University of New York at Fredonia, said algae are a normal part of a healthy ecosystem to a certain extent.
“Even the blue-green algae are very normal in the late summer for lakes in this area,” Wigdahl-Perry said. “The problem comes in when human activities throw off the balance of the system and this results in excessive algae growth and less desirable water quality.”
Based on the 2016 Citizen Statewide Lake Assessment Program report from the Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Federation of Lake Associations for Chautauqua Lake, there is no long-term trend in Chlorophyll A, which is an indicator of how much total algae are present in either the north or the south basin. Wigdahl-Perry said the analysis compares seasonal averages for a year to the whole data set which goes back to 1987. That comparison gives the researchers a good sense of year-to-year changes and how certain years compare to others, she said.
The report for 2017 has not yet been released.
Wigdahl-Perry said lakes in Chautauqua County are generally classified as mesotropic or eutrophic, which means the lakes are considered to be “moderately or highly productive” to produce algae and plant growth. The blooms are a problem in the county lakes, she said, but she said it cannot be said if they are getting better or worse at this point using the data available since the 1980s.
“That said, this particular measure of algae growth doesn’t necessarily cover the whole story or mean that there isn’t a problem,” Wigdahl-Perry said. “For example, Chautauqua Lake is a big lake. There’s a lot of spatial variation in algae growth across the two basins, so there could be worse problems in particular locations than others. The nature of the blooms could be changing as well in terms of algae toxins that pose public health risks.”
When it comes to solving the algae problems, she said that is not an easy question to answer.
“What I can say is that one of the best ways to reduce algae growth is to limit nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus coming into the lake from the surrounding landscape,” Wigdahl-Perry said. “It’s not something that can be done by one or a few people. Reducing nutrient loads from the 14 sub-watersheds coming into Chautauqua is incredibly complicated and requires everyone in the greater lake community to be involved.
There are several excellent organizations around the county that are working toward improving water quality as well as community awareness and education n how to aid in these efforts.”
In the same vein, Borrello said the county is working to “stem the flow” of phosphorus into the lakes which will help solve the problem. Borrello said the county has been working with farmers on better land management, stream bank stabilization and keeping animals out of the water. Due to what can seem like “behind-the-scenes” work, the phosphorus levels have begun to level off and even decrease.
In a recent meeting with county officials and the state DEC, Borrello said the use of aluminum sulfate, which can be used to de-activate phosphorus and limit algae growth, could be approved for use in Chautauqua Lake. However, Borrello said aluminum sulfate, also referred to as “alum,” is typically only a temporary fix and if the bloom is large, it would take a large amount to impact it.
“I would say that yes, that is something we will look at,” Borrello said. “It may require a modification to the macrophyte management strategy in order to use it, which is something that would be done throughout the county. It might be one more tool in our utility belt to help combat this issue.”
However, homeowners can help with the issue as well by putting in buffer zones of natural growth between the water’s edge and their lawns and making conscientious choices about waterways in the area, for example, not dumping leaves into creeks near their homes, making sure to keep their septic tanks properly functioning or by not flushing pills down their toilets. Continuing the sewering around Chautauqua Lake will also be helpful in the process.
“We need participation from the landowners around the lake,” Borrello said. “If we want to solve this problem, we need to treat the disease, not the symptoms.”