Harmful Algal Blooms Strike Early: What Can Be Expected For Cayuga This Summer – ithaca.com

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Updated: July 6, 2024 @ 12:16 pm
Suspicious blooms from Seneca County reported on June 3rd to the Cayuga Lake HABs hotline.

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Suspicious blooms from Seneca County reported on June 3rd to the Cayuga Lake HABs hotline.
With record-high temperatures earlier this month, the health of Cayuga Lake is back in the spotlight. Three harmful algal blooms (HABs) have been reported from the shoreline since June began and continuous hot weather promises more for the summer. 
After HABs were first reported on the lake in 2014,  they have become central to the conversation around protecting water quality in the Finger Lakes. HABs are caused by excessive cyanobacteria growth that results from multiple stressors on Cayuga’s ecosystem. These include excess phosphorus pollution, the presence of invasive dreissenid mussels (Zebra and Quagga mussels), and rising water temperatures due to climate change. 
Some species of cyanobacteria produce toxins that accumulate during a bloom event and threaten the health of other organisms that come into contact with them. Following a warmer-than-normal spring, the early HAB sightings were not unexpected. Nonetheless, they prompted crucial discussion around the HABs monitoring season, including when lab analysis of samples should begin. 
“The official HABs monitoring season doesn’t start until July,” Dr. Grascen Shidemantle told the Times. Shidemantle is the  Executive Director of the Community Science Institute, a local nonprofit organization with an E.L.A.P certified laboratory that leads the Cayuga Lake HABs Monitoring Program. 
On June 3 and 12, C.S.I. volunteers reported two blooms at the north end of the lake near Seneca Falls. On June 16, another bloom was discovered just south of the Ithaca Yacht Club. Because these reports occurred before official monitoring, samples were not collected. Still, they appear as “suspicious blooms” on C.S.I’s publically accessible online HABs database. 
According to a June 24 press release by Tompkins County Whole Health, cyanobacteria takes on a bright green color. HABs have a paint-like appearance, materializing in “blue-green oily swirls, parallel green streaks, or floating mats.” 
TCWH advises residents to keep a fair distance from potential HABs and look for them throughout neighboring bodies of water. 
“Avoid contact with the water if it appears discolored or has an unpleasant odor. Do not allow pets to swim in water where suspicious cyanobacteria blooms are present. Hot weather and intense rain and runoff events can lead to an increase in the presence of HABs,” the press release warned. 
If contact does occur with a suspicious bloom, Tompkins residents are instructed to rinse quickly and thoroughly. They should seek immediate medical attention if they experience “vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.”
Homeowners with private ponds should be wary of blooms as they can grow in smaller areas as well. The Tompkins County Soil & Water Conservation District can offer guidance on handling HABs. Calling C.S.I. is also in the best interest of a HABs witness. 
While nothing has been spotted since, staff and community scientists are prepared for the next blooms outbreak. With one of the most comprehensive HABs monitoring and testing programs in the state, all eyes are on Cayuga. And C.S.I. is taking new scientific measures to address blooms in the coming months. 
“Despite our disappointment that HABs have popped up in June this year, we do have two things that we’re quite excited about in 2024,” Shidemantle said. “We’re going to be investigating HAB clumps more closely.”

Shidemantle and her colleagues are ecstatic about increasing surveillance involvement. They also look forward to pioneering laboratory work. 
“We will be collaborating with the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center to find a screening tool for microcystin toxin,” she said.
Advanced testing and screening procedures are unique to Ithaca’s watershed. While other protection agencies in the Finger Lakes region rely solely on photo monitoring, C.S.I. has established pristine methods for observing blooms more closely. With coordinated “HABs Carrier” volunteers that transport samples to the institute’s state-certified testing lab, scientists can measure the concentration of the cyanotoxin microcystin with each new bloom. The composition of blooms is assessed for trends so that the severity of different HABs is understood. 
In addition to running these volunteer programs, C.S.I. also works in tandem with Cayuga Lake Watershed Network (CLWN) and Discover Cayuga Lake. Both non-profit organizations help lead HABs education and outreach for communities around Cayuga Lake.
CLWN runs a weekly newsletter that updates concerned citizens on recent algal blooms and informs them on how to handle HABs if spotted. The Network also publishes pamphlets and helpful information on how to live “lake friendly,” reducing negative impacts homeowners may inadvertently have on water quality. 
Looking back at the partnership between these organizations, CLWN Executive Director Liz Kretinger was proud of the partnership’s effect. 
“Together, our organizations have been providing trusted science-based water quality monitoring, education, and stewardship programs for 25 years,” she said. 
Meanwhile, Discover Cayuga Lake offers learning opportunities to learn about the Lake’s ecosystem via their boat, the MV Teal. A public lake monitoring cruise leaves from the Ithaca Farmers Market on Sundays at 2 p.m. DCL also runs “The Floating Classroom,” a water science course that allows students to explore the microscopic organisms native to our the while on board. 
Regarding HABs, Executive Director Bill Foster expressed some of DCL’s teaching objectives. 
“We want to put across the idea that there is not a simple solution,” he said. “We want to encourage as many people to be talking about it as possible.”
Entering the HABs season, watershed organizations are putting more emphasis on having conversations about cyanobacteria. 
Fayette Town Supervisor Jeff Trout brings a broader perspective to the occurrence of HABs happening in freshwater regions. As his town falls between Seneca and Cayuga, his responsibility extends to both watersheds. Over time, he’s identified sensitivities unique to this lake. 
“Because Seneca Lake is deeper and colder, it doesn’t have the HABs issue that Cayuga Lake does,” Trout told the Times. 
Shallow warm waters at the north end of the have already been invaded by HABs this month. Blooms are causing closures, threatening tourism, and contaminating Cayuga before swimmers even hit the water. So, what should citizens do to keep cyanobacteria away? 
“The best thing you can do is volunteer,” Shidemantle says. “We’re always looking for more harriers to monitor the shoreline and more carriers to help get samples to our lab.” 
Kira Walter is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times.
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I was told that Cornell University pumps lake water thorough a system to cool buildings on campus. The returning lake water is several degrees warmer from this process. Anyone know if this is correct? If so I think exploring how this contributes to the HAB is valid.
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