Partnerships benefit health of our lakes

With summer in full swing in upstate New York, I, like many of you, am turning to our region’s lakes to cool off, relax with family and friends, and seek connection with the environment.

Unfortunately, harmful algal blooms, or HABs, have already started cropping up in our lakes. Red Jacket Beach on Keuka Lake was closed over the Fourth of July weekend because of these dangerous algal blooms. HABs have already closed beaches at Taughannock Falls State Park and Myers Park on Cayuga Lake. It is likely, as in past years, that HABs will close beaches on Lake Chautauqua this summer.

Although most algae are harmless, there are certain types that grow rapidly in the summer to form large, paint-like blooms of cyanobacteria. These mats often are blue-green in appearance, though they may range in color from purple to yellow to red. Capable of producing harmful toxins, these particular blooms can be dangerous. They should be avoided and reported.

2019 is shaping up to be a record-setting year in terms of the number of reported HABs in our lakes and waterways. For many of us who live in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, harmful algal blooms impact the ways we exercise, spend time with family, and even work.

It is no stretch to imagine parents consoling their children when summer camp activities have been canceled due to hazardous conditions, and property owners standing on the end of a dock, watching a blue-green film float by and wondering whether it is safe to let their dog play at the water’s edge. We can well imagine early morning swimmers swapping texts at the break of day, alerting one another to the safety of the water, and anglers worried about whether it is safe to eat the fish they’ve just caught.

Some environmental scientists and local business owners who rely upon and have regular contact with the water find their jobs affected, too. And locals aren’t the only folks impacted.

Tourists who visit our region to enjoy our lakes find their vacations curtailed as the HABs interfere with plans for boating, swimming, fishing, and other lakeside pastimes.

That is why I am calling for close collaboration between the local, state and federal government agencies to work with key stakeholders in the farming, tourism, environmental, and scientific communities to tackle this problem with the urgency it deserves.

Groups like the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Community Science Institute are keeping HAB maps to help members of the public determine where harmful algal blooms have been reported on Lake Chautauqua, and what their toxicity level is. The collaborative efforts of groups like the Chautauqua Lake Partnership, the Chautauqua Lake Association, the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, and many others, all of which work with volunteers to collect samples, monitor lake health, and share information on their websites, keep the public safe and informed.

This spirit of collaboration continues as scientists and farmers work together to reduce runoff during heavy rainstorms of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen into our lakes. Phosphorus and nitrogen often come from farms and are some of the primary nutrients upon which the algae feed.

According to research published in the journal Applied Animal Science, scientists are helping farmers use a new feeding model, whereby the cows receive less protein in their feed and thus produce less nitrogen in their manure.

This means less nitrogen running into our lakes for the algae to feed upon, all while saving the farmer money in the long run. Here is where government can help. We should make sure that research like this is fully funded and that agencies like the Cornell Cooperative Extension have the resources they need to get cutting edge research into the hands of farmers.

Partnering at the local level is important, but there is also work to be done at the national level. We need the federal government to start showing real leadership in aggressively tackling climate change with a measured and carefully constructed schedule to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. With the right mix of market-based incentives, well-reasoned regulations and forward thinking, this shift can create jobs, thwart an environmental and economic crisis, and put the United States back in the position of global leadership.

How many more years of negligence in Washington can our farmers, fisherman, ecosystem and tourism industries really withstand?

Tracy Mitrano is a candidate for the 23rd Congressional District of New York.