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Finger Lakes HABs season gets early start with bloom confirmed in Seneca Falls on Cayuga Lake

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

The Finger Lakes’ 2024 HABs season kicked off this week with a widespread bloom reported near the northwest tip of Cayuga Lake.

The Finger Lakes’ first confirmed HABs of 2024 sprang up Monday on the Cayuga Lake shoreline near Lower Lake Road in Seneca Falls.

Based on photos taken Monday from the dock of a homeowner on Lower Lake Road in Seneca Falls, the state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed it as a cyanobacteria bloom, or HAB (harmful algal bloom), rather than harmless floating pollen, which is common in early June.

Although pollen was also present in the photos, the bloom was consistent with HABs in “color, texture, density and surface area covered,” said Grascen Shidemantle, executive director of the Community Science Institute in Ithaca.

Plus, there were dead fish in the area, indicating there were either low levels of oxygen or a toxin in the water.

In the Finger Lakes, cyanobacteria blooms produce several types of toxin, most commonly microcystin.

In recent years, all 11 Finger Lakes have been plagued by HABs. They are most frequent in September and October but can arrive earlier if lake waters are warm enough and calm.

The state’s first confirmed cyanobacteria bloom this year came May 20 in New York City’s Central Park, according to the DEC’s map of 2024 HABs locations.

So far this season, Cayuga and Honeoye (June 4) are the only Finger Lakes with reported blooms.

Exposure to HABs by touching, swallowing or breathing can cause diarrhea or nausea and skin, eye or throat irritation. It can be deadly to dogs and other pets. 

It can be tricky to tell the difference between patches of tree pollen and a harmful algal bloom. To volunteer and learn the difference, contact CSI’s Alyssa Johnson [email protected].

Local health departments regularly close beaches when suspicious blooms are spotted.

In the early summer, patches of harmless tree pollen can be dense enough to fool the untrained eye into assuming they are HABs, which usually don’t arrive until many weeks later.

CSI, a non-profit founded in 2000, and several watershed associations in the Finger Lakes ask volunteers to take pictures of suspected blooms and submit them for analysis by the DEC. Typically, the agency will decided whether to upgrade a “suspicious” bloom to a “confirmed” bloom on the basis of the submitted photos. 

CSI goes a step further. Beginning July 1, it will collect water samples from suspicious blooms to look at them under a microscope to confirm the presence of chlorophyl-a and various types of cyanobacteria. 

To the untrained eye, the streaks across Cayuga Lake look like HABs. But they’re harmless pollen. Photo by Bob Thomas.

Those tests have shown that “CSI-trained harriers (volunteers) do correctly identify HABs about 90 percent of the time,” Shidemantle said.

“To my knowledge, the Cayuga Lake HAB monitoring program is the only program in the state where bloom samples are still being collected for laboratory confirmation of HABs on a regular basis,” she added.

Several years ago, the DEC discontinued financial support for tests that measure the toxicity levels of cyanobacteria blooms. But CSI routinely publishes the results of its toxicity level tests (at least for reports after July 1).

In recent years, Cayuga Lake has led the state in early-season confirmed blooms. Last year its first reported bloom came on June 22. 

But Seneca, Owasco and Canandaigua have all been hard-hit by flurries of blooms later in the season. And in 2017, a bloom appeared on Skaneateles Lake for the first time in 30 years, threatening the unfiltered drinking water supply for the City of Syracuse.

Once rare in New York State, HABs outbreaks are now routine. They are “driven by the climate crisis and poor watershed management practices, which result in warming waters and high nutrient inputs,” according to the justification memo for pending state legislation sponsored by Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse).

“The highest incidence of outbreaks (in the state) occurred in the Finger Lakes with the highest incidence in Cayuga Lake with 88 confirmed cases,” said the memo for Senate Bill S8356A. Aside from harming human health, HABs “also threaten critical economic drivers, which, for example, in the Finger Lakes region, represents a $3.2 billion tourism industry that supports over 60,000 jobs.”

State Sen. Rachel May

May’s bill, which passed the Senate 59-0 on May 8, is awaiting action in the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee in the closing days of the legislative session. The bill would charge the DEC with establishing a system to monitor, evaluate, prevent and mitigate HABs. 

Meanwhile, the City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco and the Owasco Watershed Lake Association have sued the state Departments of Health and Agriculture for failing to adequately protect local drinking water from toxins caused by cyanobacteria blooms.

After local stakeholders around Owasco had spent years drafting new watershed regulations to reduce nutrient runoff, the state Department of Health ruled that it lacked legal authority to promulgate regulations to protect Owasco Lake from HABs. The lawsuit asks a state court to rule that the DOH’s conclusion was improper.

The case was filed in Cayuga County and has since been removed to the Supreme Court in Albany County. The state agencies have not yet filed their response briefs.

Various other Finger Lakes groups have have tried to raise awareness about the dangers of HABs and the causes of the crisis. Analyses of regional watersheds have shown that agricultural runoff is the primary source of the nitrogen and phosphorous that fuel cyanobacteria blooms.

HABs experts at a Canandaigua forum in May: From left: Andy Zepp of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, Anthony Prestigiacomo of the DEC, Greg Boyer of SUNY-ESF, Lisa Cleckner of the Finger Lakes Institute and Canandaigua Watershed Manager Kevin Olvany.

In March, the Finger Lakes Institute in Geneva and the Finger Lakes Land Trust in Ithaca co-sponsored a ZOOM event that drew 800 to hear Dan Egan discuss his book, “The Devil’s Element: Phosphorous and a World Out of Balance.”

In May, the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association held a forum that featured regional experts on the HABs crisis. “Water is the basis of the Finger Lakes economy,” said Lisa Cleckner, director of the Finger Lakes Institute. Controlling HABs is vital to protect the lifeblood of the region, she said.

And the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network has planned a June 20 forum in Seneca Falls. Speakers include Shidemantle and Anthony Prestigiacomo, the DEC’s supervisor of the Finger Lakes Watershed Hub.