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SUNDAY CONVERSATION: Region faces big challenge with HABs growing in prevalence each year

Last year New York State committed $65 million to learning and studying toxic algal blooms, which threaten local waterways, water supplies, and have put a serious strain on some local municipal water systems.

Harmful Algal Blooms, or HABs, are one of the greatest environmental concerns facing the Finger Lakes; and a lot is still unknown about them.

This week, FL1 News caught up with Frank DiOrio, of the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association to discuss algal blooms in Seneca Lake; and how the rest of the state could learn from the management steps being taken right here in the heart of the Finger Lakes.


HABs are complicated, and as experts point out – a lot remains unknown about them. According to DiOrio, HAB watchers know that the bacteria thrives in warm, nutrient-rich water, and requires conditions to be right.

He noted that typically after heavy rain, which causes extensive runoff from farm fields and vineyards – lakes can become nutrient rich. If that heavy rain is then followed by a period of dry, calm weather – it can create the ‘perfect storm’ – causing a HAB outbreak.

“But it’s impossible to know where they are going to appear exactly,” he explained. Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association has volunteers who work throughout the summer to collect samples, which are tested by their partners to determine toxicity. They noted an uptick in harmful algal blooms in Seneca Lake in both 2017 and 2018 – compared to 2015, and 2016.

While defining the cause of HABs is one problem, the Department of of Environmental Conservation describes HABs as follows:

“Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in freshwater generally consist of cyanobacteria (also referred to as blue-green algae). Cyanobacteria are naturally present in low numbers in most marine and freshwater systems but under certain conditions, particularly high nutrients and warm temperatures, the organisms can begin to multiply rapidly and form blooms. Similar to algae, cyanobacteria possess chlorophyll and are capable of photosynthesis. Several types have the potential to produce toxins and other harmful compounds that can pose a public health risk to people and animals through ingestion, skin contact, or inhalation. DEC suggests avoiding contact with any water that is discolored or has algal scums on the surface.”

DiOrio said that lab testing is 100 percent necessary to determine the toxicity, or to determine if a harmful algal bloom is present; and oftentimes – by the time the results come back – the bloom is gone. “It has a shine to it,” he added, explaining that harmful algal blooms can sometimes be identified by the rake test. HABs sometimes look like pea soup, he explained, and is typically a fine, almost non-physical material.

Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association has been testing blooms for several years, and has even mapped reported outbreaks – publishing them on their website.

John Halfman, Ph.D., who teaches in the Department of Geoscience and Environmental Studies Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva has also been testing the lake. In fact, he’s been doing it since the early-1990s.

He says Seneca Lake is changing; and it shows in some basic measures.


Seneca Lake is approximately 66.3 square miles, or 42,400 acres large. It features around 75 miles of shoreline; and 11 municipalities rely on the lake for public drinking water. Altogether, 100,000 people rely on Seneca Lake as their primary water source.

Stream monitoring data from Seneca Lake Pure Waters shows the following:

  • Phosphorus is elevated, particularly Reeder Creek, and all streams have elevated phosphorus levels in high flow conditions.
  • E.Coli (bacteria) is elevated in streams flowing into the lake and streams are contaminated with animal and/or human waste.
  • Bigger impacts during high flow conditions versus baseline flow conditions.
  • Erosion is a problem: plumes of sediment entering the lake from stream runoff, especially during high flows – suspended sediments reduce water clarity and are source of excessive nutrients.
  • Upstream inputs can have adverse impacts: wastewater treatment outfalls, septic systems, agricultural runoff (manure, fertilizers) affect water quality downstream.
  • Caynobacteria Blooms or  CyanoHABs are becoming more prevalent.

While the agricultural industry is frequently pointed to as a possible contributor to the HAB problem, DiOrio says that local farmers, along with local and state officials have been great partners. “We all want the same things for the region,” he explained. “We all want to see a healthy, thriving Seneca Lake, and Finger Lakes region.”

In 2019 a major change is coming for Seneca Lake Pure Waters, who will ramp up testing of algal blooms, as they are reported to their organization. DiOrio said that testing will move to a 7-day schedule, instead of the Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule, which had been observed in years past. “This will allow our volunteers to capture more data, and allow us to continue learning more about this problem – getting us closer to a solution.”

Learn more about Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association by clicking here.