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Ian Smith on harmful algae blooms, prevention, and the Nine Element Plan for Seneca-Keuka watershed

We’ve heard a lot about the threat of toxic algae over the past few years. It’s an issue of great concern to environmentalists and local leaders alike. Seneca Lake alone provides 100,000 area residents with drinking water, and over one million people get their water from the 11 Finger Lakes.

Ian Smith, the Seneca Watershed Steward based out of the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, recently sat down with FingerLakes1.com’s Ted Baker to discuss the Nine Element Plan for the Seneca and Keuka Lakes watershed, steps to combat harmful algae blooms that put the region’s water supply in jeopardy, and how local communities are working together to make it happen.

Smith joined the Seneca Watershed Inter-Municipal Organization (SWIO) in 2019 as the organization’s first real employee, setting in motion the initiative known as the Seneca-Keuka Watershed Nine Element Plan (9E).


What is 9E, and how will it be implemented?

Smith says the focus of the plan is “quantitative targets for improvement” to increase access to vital grant funding. Specifically, it seeks to target nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen sediments, which research suggests are the driving force behind harmful algae blooms (HABs) that plague the region’s waterways.

“We’re at the point where we’re taking a lot of the feedback we got from the public, from agencies…we’re currently working on developing an implementation plan to direct our efforts most efficiently and effectively as possible,” said Smith.

One of SWIO’s goals is to gather more data about soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP), which Smith says is “a form of phosphorus immediately available to biological organisms, and there’s a lot of thought that that’s a particular form of phosphorus that’s driving [algae] bloom response.”


What’s causing HABs, and what does the 9E Plan say about preventing them?

HABs, it turns out, are a lot less fun than their acronym. They occur naturally, but in the last ten years, they’ve become more frequent and more intense in their spread. When algae colonies grow out of control, they produce chemicals like SRP that harm lake species and local water sources.

“There’s a lot of emerging research that [shows] there’s a strong link [between] the presence of invasive quagga and zebra mussels that are now in all the Finger Lakes, they seem to preferentially feed on other plankton species allowing the HABs to outcompete them,” said Smith.

That means the mussels excrete phosphorus, which serves as a nutrient for algae, allowing HABs to spread rapidly. While reducing the number of quagga and zebra mussels in the Finger Lakes may be beyond the scope of the 9E Plan, Smith hopes his organization can support efforts to quell the population of these invasive species.


How can you get involved?

Smith says one of the simplest, most effective actions local residents can take to help preserve the Seneca-Keuka Watershed is to plant trees. If you have a lot of excess water on your property, trees can help soak up the water, putting it back into the ground or atmosphere instead of into streams. The message is clear: You don’t have to live right next to right next to a waterway to be affected by algae blooms, and you don’t have to leave home to help stop their spread.

So far, 30 out of the 45 municipalities in the Seneca-Keuka Watershed have joined the Seneca Watershed Inter-Municipal Organization. Local interest in SWIO’s efforts and their 9E Plan continues to grow- over 100 people attended their last community outreach event. SWIO is set to hold their last public forum before finalizing the 9E Plan on April 25 at 6 p.m. at the Yates County Office Complex.

You can listen to the rest of Ted Baker’s interview with Ian Smith, Seneca Watershed Steward, here.



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