Toxic algae is getting worse in the Finger Lakes

Local News

Neil Atkins has spent his whole life in the Finger Lakes. He lived for many years on Owasco Lake and now has a home on Canandaigua Lake and is part of the Canandaigua Yacht club. Atkins runs the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association that over the past several years has focused on harmful algal blooms (HABs). 

“We saw it two years ago with significant blooms,” said Atkins. “In this past year, the day after Labor Day.” This algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is a soupy green that can be toxic and is becoming more common. As of 2017, it has been seen on every Finger Lake. This can potentially scare away tourism.  

“The beaches are closed. I was in charge of that this year,” said Atkins, reminiscing about the number of days many areas of the Finger Lakes were closed because of the potentially toxic algae. 

Atkins says the solution is cutting back pollution around the lake. “A limited use or a complete non-use of chemicals on lawns in and around the watershed.” The Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association is now encouraging residents along the water to avoid pesticides, especially ones that carry phosphorus, to supplement a lawn. 

John Halfman is a geolimnology and hydrogeochemistry professor at Hobart-William Smith College and has been studying the Finger Lakes for decades. He has actively measured water temperature and said the warming over the past 25 years has been statistically significant. Warmer water and warmer air are not the only things that global climate change is influencing.  

Events like the record flooding in Lodi in 2018 picked up nutrients, chemicals, and everything in its path while flowing downhill and put it all into the lake. This was feed for the algae. 

“Because of those really intense events, there’s probably a direct correlation with what’s going on with the algal concentrations in these lakes.” 

Nutrients from runoff are normally a good thing for these lakes, but too much of a good thing, in this case, is toxic. 

“Those toxins can be severe enough that if you get in contact with them you can get a neurological disorder from them and die.” 

Besides health, Halfman says this is the biggest threat to tourism dollars. Atkins knows this and says drastic action to reduce pollution has to happen now. 

“Not everybody agrees with that, but this is the tack we’re taking,” said Atkins. He says the boating industry will remain afloat, but more blooms could mean less money in the long run. 

Atkins also says boats going out on Canandaigua Lake are inspected regularly before taking the water. This helps to prevent the spread of invasive species like hydrilla that are known to be more successful as climate change continues. 

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