Progress being made in fight against harmful algal blooms
MAYVILLE — While there are still unanswered questions about weeds in Chautauqua Lake, the fight against harmful algal blooms in the local waters seems to be progressing.
County Executive PJ Wendel recently invited representatives from municipalities around Chautauqua Lake to hear a presentation about progress being done through the Jefferson Project.
Wendel noted the Jefferson Project is in its third year of a six-year project, trying to figure out what is causing these harmful algal blooms and what can be done to stop them. Earlier this year, the county legislature authorized spending $1 million for the project, which is coming out of the American Rescue Plan Act, and originated from the federal government in response to COVID-19.
Wendel believes the county is making progress. He said they have a great relationship with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Also, U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer have both said that Chautauqua Lake is their number one priority. “This is the highest that the Army Corps of Engineers project — the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Project here in Chautauqua Lake — has ever been,” he said.
According to Wendel, in the end the Army Corps of Engineering would give recommendations on how to restore the lake’s aquatic eco-system.
“Many of us feel dredging is going to be a high option,” he said.
Michael Hill, president of Chautauqua Institution, was in attendance virtually and introduced two members of the Jefferson Project — John Kelly and Harry Kohlar, who also joined in virtually. Kelly noted harmful algal blooms are spreading rapidly across the U.S, with New York the most impacted state in America. He estimates this is a $6.25 billion impact across the country.
“It’s an environmental pandemic. It’s a pandemic on our lakes,” he said.
Kelly went over the nitty gritty about the studies they’ve done so far, including understanding how phosphorus is bonded to iron oxyhydroxides in sediments. Kelly showed photographs of the vertical profiler used to study the lake, which measures algae versus time, temperatures and wind speeds. Their studies show the problem of the algae has been discovered in the middle of the lake, which leads them to believe the harmful algal bloom can’t just be “skimmed off” to correct it.
“It’s not a surface phenomenon. You can’t skim this off. The entire column of the water is engaged,” he said.
They have developed a couple of hypotheses about why there’s more algal blooms now. They include factors of major storms, major runoffs and supercharged nutrients. Kelly believes they need to target phosphorus, which is found in fertilizers and other runoffs.
“That phosphorus is critical to the growth of the particular species that are causing these harmful algal blooms,” he said.
Kohlar, who spoke after Kelly, noted that along with studying the harmful algal blooms to understand how they’re produced, when they’re produced, and why they’re produced, they need to understand when these blooms become toxic.
“Not every HAB, even though it’s called a HAB — a harmful algal bloom — actually produces toxins,” he said.
Kohlar said they’re hoping to at some point be able to study a HAB and determine if and when it will become toxic.
“We think we can actually predict within a couple of dates ahead of time, which would be, obviously, immensely important for health and safety,” he said.
He believes that either this year or next they will be able to identify the gene that is releasing the toxins into the water and air.
“When we determine that, we’ll be able to determine what’s the mechanism that’s triggering that and I hope it’s something that we can immediately go into action and cause that gene not to be triggered,” he said.
During the question and answer period, one person asked about Chautauqua Lake’s weed problem, which wasn’t addressed during the presentation. Kelly confirmed they have not focused their studies on weeds and are focusing more on harmful algal blooms. Kelly’s concern is that by killing off large portions of weeds may actually increase harmful algal blooms.
“Those weeds are taking nutrients out of the lake that are not getting to the cyanobacteria. I know it’s a tough choice, do you want weeds or do you want cyanobacteria. We don’t want either but they’re both eating the nutrients,” he said.
Hill said while they’re focusing on HABs right now, their bigger goal is to make Chautauqua Lake a “smart lake” that can be studied for other issues, including weeds.
“Once this smart lake is built … we will have the technology and the mechanism to be looking at these issues and new ones we haven’t even thought about,” he said.