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Blue-Green Algae: The summer guest Honeoye didn’t invite

In the Finger Lakes, summertime is highly anticipated and upon arrival, cherished.

The temperament of Upstate New York isn’t exactly amiable for a good part of the year, so when people can be on or near the lake — enjoying the sunshine — they take full advantage.

Something has been threatening this prized lake time in recent years, to the indignation of people and animals alike. Harmful Algal Blooms, or HABs, have been appearing in the lakes of the North East in concerning numbers. Governor Andrew Cuomo has identified 12 main priority lakes in New York with the most pressing algae potential, and thereby formed his HABs 12 Initiative. These lakes, Honeoye being one of them, were deemed “laboratories”, and will be staged provide researchers with information they need to cure this growing problem.

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The threat to the overall health of the lakes could grow exponentially with the algae presence heightened by the chemicals in agricultural runoff and livestock waste. In bigger lakes like Conesus, Seneca, and Canandaigua, there are somewhere between 50 to 70 percent agricultural land in the watershed. A good portion of that is ‘tilled’ land.

In Honeoye only four percent of the watershed is agricultural land — more than half of that solely pastures and fields — not tilled and treated crops. Due to this, a very small amount of the phosphorus and nitrogen contribution comes from agricultural runoff. Upwards of 92 percent of phosphorus that helps cause HABs in Honeoye Lake comes from naturally occurring processes in the bottom of the lake.

When the phosphorus can bond with iron there are no issues with algae. But as the plants decay, they consume the dissolved oxygen in the sediment causing the phosphorus and iron break apart. These nutrients are natural, but help the formation of algal blooms.

Terry Gronwall, chairman of the Honeoye Lake Watershed Task Force, explains “A little lake like Honeoye is shallow, but stratifies to form a thermal climb.” A thermal climb is essentially an imaginary line that divides the different water densities, getting colder as you dive deeper and farther from the sun. Terry continued “Because Honeoye is so shallow, a windy day will churn the water and bring that nutrient-rich water to the top… four or five days later, we have a bloom.”

Something that has in the past helped keep the blooms at bay are aluminum sulfate treatments, which provide something for this loose phosphorus to bind to without harming wildlife or changing the pH of the water when used in proper amounts.

In the summer of 2006, this treatment was carried out, and no algae was seen for two to three years. They typically last five to seven years in their full dosage, but the DEC halved the dose given to Honeoye for ‘safety reasons’. Despite the shortened lifespan of the treatment, Terry and his wife Dorothy say that in the summers of 2007 and 2008, the water was as clear as they’d ever seen it. But since then, New York State is the only one in the U.S. that isn’t allowed to use aluminum sulfate treatments like this. The EPA allows it, but the New York State DEC has deemed them illegal and banned the practice.
The interesting part though, is that in the DEC action plan to combat HABs, an aluminum sulfate treatment was their number one recommendation — one that they had already ruled out.

Terry and Dorothy are both long-time residents and passionate advocates of Honeoye Lake, and serving as chairman on the Watershed Task Force allows him to be close to the action. He said that HABs have been an issue in Honeoye as far back as at least the 1940’s, to his knowledge, but they’ve been worse in the recent years.

“In 2002 I remember it vividly, we had a very bad year,” Terry recounted. “We had a whole bloom, and it smelled so bad in the hamlet of Honeoye people in town complained. In terms of the news it’s been an issue in the last 10 to 15 years, but Honeoye lake has a longer history with these HABs.”

According to the HABs 12 Initiative proposed by Cuomo, there is a $65 million fund to combat these blooms. The funding was supposed to reach its destinations by the end of July, but it doesn’t seem as though that will be the case. About a week ago, the criteria were released by the DEC that town boards need to meet in order to tap into the state funding. The only problem with this, is the deadline is July 27th. With competitive grant applications to be written and scientific data to be collected in the span of the next four-and-a-half weeks, the chances are looking slim that the funding will come through on time.

For lake residents like Terry and Dorothy all around the region, this monetary grant was a beacon of hope that’s now dancing farther and farther out of sight — for now.

Honeoye and the other affected lakes know what they need to do. It’s just a matter of having the funding to act. The passion, energy, knowledge, research, and practically every other piece is in place. Except for the funds necessary to carry out the plans. But families like this Honeoye duo cross their fingers for a hopeful future — sooner-than-later — where their beloved lake and others like it will be free of these potent algal blooms.

FL1 Reporter Addilys Geitner is an intern from Nazareth College in Rochester. The junior has roots in Bloomfield, but is reporting on stories throughout the Western Finger Lakes. Follow Addilys on Twitter @AddilysGeitner, or email addi@fingerlakes1.com

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