Runoff from Taughannock Creek into Cayuga Lake
Every seat in The Space @ GreenStar was filled on the afternoon of Saturday, April 14 with a crowd eager to learn what they, as citizens, can do to combat the type of harmful algal blooms that plagued the Finger Lakes last summer.
The talk they were there to see, titled “HABs and Nonpoint Source Pollution in the Finger Lakes: Strategies for Addressing the Threat,” featured presentations by five speakers gathered by the the Community Science Institute— which sponsored the event: Cornell University professor of Ecology Robert Howarth, who discussed the relationship between HABs and nutrients; Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager John Negley, who spoke on New York State programs to combat nonpoint source pollution; a report on total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) and Nine Element plans by City of Ithaca Watershed coordinator Roxy Johnston; an explanation of the importance of long-term data sets by Community Science Institute director Stephen Penningroth and, finally, Finger Lakes Land Trust director Andrew Zepp, who shared his thoughts on the value of collective action.
Each of their presentations gave a comprehensive picture surrounding the greater threat of nonpoint source pollution and their relation to harmful algal blooms (HABs), offering ideas as to what can be done to reduce their impact. HABs, which were first confirmed in Cayuga Lake by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in July of 2017, are an aquatic cyanobacteria that rely on photosynthesis and an abundance of nutrients to survive, and pose a significant threat to the surrounding area. According to the New York State Health Department, human contact with HABs can result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, allergic reactions, and irritations of the eyes, skin, or throat. HABs also have a negative impact on the environment, as they can kill fish, interfere with aquatic food webs, and create unpleasant odors, as well as the local economy by affecting tourism, property values, and economic development.
“It’s scary,” said Howarth—who delivered the forum’s introductory presentation—in an email to The Ithaca Times afterward. “These things are dangerous. You do not want to drink the water, you do not want to touch the water when they’re out there. You can die from it, quite frankly. It’s not a small threat.”
The DEC lists the likely causes of HABs as “a combination of water and environmental conditions that may include: excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), lots of sunlight, low-water or low-flow conditions, calm water, and warm temperatures. In an agriculture-rich region like the Finger Lakes, HABs are introduced to the environment through nonpoint source pollution combined with an optimal environment to thrive: accumulation of nutrients in a body of water as a result of land runoff. In contrast to point source pollution (e.g. a discharge pipe running into a body of water), nonpoint source pollution is runoff from a variety of sources enabled by heavy rainfall and snowmelt. Major agricultural contributors to nonpoint source pollution include excess use of fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides; overgrazing, overplowing, and inadequate manure storage.
Although many point to phosphorus runoff into the lakes from fertilizers as the primary cause of HABs, Howarth hypothesizes that the water’s phosphorus levels aren’t the main culprit. “I think it’s not just a phosphorous problem, but also a nitrogen problem,” he said in an interview after the forum. “And that’s not what people have been classically thinking.”
Howarth offers Cayuga and Skaneateles lakes as an example of why nitrogen might be the larger issue, as he says phosphorus levels have been managed very well in the bodies of water for decades. “The HAB events in Skaneateles and Cayuga last summer were a great surprise, and should not have occurred according to past management regimes,” he said.
Howarth’s reasoning is climate change—more particularly, the conditions of the wet summer that the Finger Lakes experienced in 2017 following an extremely dry 2016. Cold weather, Howarth says, creates “prime conditions” for delivering nitrogen in the form of excess manure to the lakes through rainfall and snowmelt. “I think it’s a perfect storm of nitrogen and the wet-dry cycling which is becoming more and more extreme,” he said. “Our climate didn’t use to have these really dry summers followed by really wet summers. That’s what climate change is doing to us… That is our climate now. We have to manage for it. We can’t pretend that the world hasn't changed.”
To reduce nutrient runoff into the lakes, agricultural changes must be made, such as nutrient management plans to ensure the correct amount of fertilizer is used, or vegetated buffers and drainage ditches alongside streams to filter runoff. “We need different management practices to get the farmers to try and keep the nitrogen on their farms as opposed to in the air or the creeks,” said Howarth. “And it’s doable—we know how to do that, but we’re not doing it, because no one has thought it’s a problem.”
As a result of the HAB issue, Cayuga Lake will be receiving a total maximum daily load (TMDL) regulation issued by the DEC. A TMDL, which is a part of the U.S. Clean Water Act, is the highest amount of pollutants that can be present in a body of water while still meeting a water quality standard, and is developed by the DEC using a factors such as land use, water quality data, waterbody and watershed descriptors, rainfall data, and pollutant sources.
Once Cayuga Lake receives a TMDL, Johnston advises citizens to look for and review it, make sure the municipal government reviews it, provide comments, and look for ways to participate in its implementation.
Although it remains to be seen whether HABs will appear again this summer, it is important to continue efforts to prevent the toxic cyanobacteria from threatening future safety.
Currently, there are a number of established programs that counteract nonpoint source pollution in New York State, and receive funding via the federal Environmental Protection Fund: Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution Control ($17 million), Water Quality Improvement Program ($20.25 million), Finger Lakes/Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance ($2.3 million), Soil and Water Conservation Districts ($10 million), Local Waterfront Revitalization Program ($14 million), Solid Waste Program ($38.174 million), Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programs ($19.15 million), and the Finger Lakes/Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance. Also, New York State created a Finger Lakes Water Hub last year that consists of four professional staff that operate out of a Syracuse office, and are dedicated to the issue of HABs in the Finger Lakes.
“If you want to address nonpoint source pollution, you have to put some money behind it,” said Negley.
Additionally, federal action and funding consists of the National Resources Conservation Service/Farm Services Agency, which includes programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and the CSP Conservation Stewardship Program; the Army Corps of Engineers; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; and the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, it is not just the labor of governmental bodies that is required to mitigate nonpoint source pollution; Negley points to the entire community to address nonpoint source pollution, and said it takes the “collective effort of everybody.”
“It is a challenging issue for which there is no ‘silver bullet’ in terms of a single solution,” said Zepp in an email after the forum. “Instead, we must work collectively over the long term to implement a variety of strategies to address the issue. It will require that we address everything from agricultural runoff and road ditches to septic systems and the detention of stormwater.”
Zepp, who works in each of the 12 counties and 11 various watershed groups of the Finger Lakes, emphasizes that consistent citizen communication with government officials is key to advancing action to combat HABs and nonpoint source pollution. “I would challenge you all to reach out to to both your town supervisor or mayor, and the highway supervisor and say, ‘What are you doing this day, this month, this year for the lake, and what are you going to do next year? How is it going to be different?” he said to the forum’s audience.
“The question before us now is can we—with the understanding we have, which is incomplete—effectively organize ourselves, communicate with one another, and not be a number of discordant voices that are confusing to a legislator, but to develop a coherent agenda that addresses not just one aspect, but the research agenda, a big educational agenda—both for citizens as well as landowners, mitigation strategies, and then long-term monitoring,” said Zepp.
But being informed on the issue, Zepp said, is the first step to being an effective advocate for the environment.
“Whether or not we have HABs next year—I hope that we’re lucky and we don’t—either way, I think it’s clear that we have to change the nature of how we relate to the lake as individuals,” he said.