A confirmed Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) of cyanobacteria, AKA blue-green algae, was identified in Upper Saranac Lake in Back Bay and the most northern end of the lake on Tuesday, Sept. 5. While the bloom was small and localized, the Upper Saranac Foundation (USF) enacted its HAB Emergency Action Plan (EAP). Implementation of the EAP included taking water samples for analysis by the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI), and submitting data to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the state Department of Health (DOH). The USF also sent notification emails to over 1,300 watershed users and notices to USF social media followers. The USF advised lake users to be on the lookout for the blooms and of the potential dangers associated with using water and recreating in areas of suspected HABs.
A confirmation of a HAB means this is not just a nuisance discoloration of the water: rather, a toxic cyanobacteria. Toxic blooms are capable of producing contaminants that can cause health effects in people and animals. The DOH recommends avoiding contact with the water in areas of suspected blooms and not to drink, prepare food, cook, make ice, swim, fish, or boat in this area, and keep kids and pets away. Boiling the water will not remove blue-green algae or its toxins.
HABs occur when colonies of algae that live in the water grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, animals, and birds. Contact with a HAB and its toxins can cause negative health effects. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting; skin, eye, or throat irritation; and allergic reactions or breathing difficulties. Animal illnesses and deaths also have occurred when animals consumed large amounts of accumulated algal scum from along shorelines or when animals groomed blue-green algal scums from their fur.
While the exact causes of HABs vary, they tend to occur in waters that are high in nitrogen and/or phosphorus. This bloom was likely triggered by heavy rains introducing nutrients into the water followed by a hot calm period as was seen this August and early September.
Major and persistent blooms are frightening for water-dependent tourism areas such as the USL region. Algae growth severely hampers recreation and tourism. USF focuses on various educational and outreach initiatives to prevent algae blooms from becoming a consistent problem.
Fertilizer, stormwater runoff, and septic issues are not new in the Adirondacks, but they’ve been compounded by climate change. Warmer water temperatures lengthen the growing season for algae and allow it to float to the surface. As more HABs are being identified, New York State is also investing more into understanding them. The number of water bodies statewide with HABs has steadily increased since the DEC started keeping track in 2012.
In 2018, the governor’s office announced a $65 million initiative to aggressively combat HABs in
upstate New York. A team of experts were tasked with initiating a pilot program that developed HAB Action Plans for 12 priority lakes that were considered vulnerable to HABs, were critical sources of drinking water, and were vital tourism drivers. The goal was to identify contributing factors fueling HABs and implement innovative strategies to address their causes and protect water quality.
While Upper Saranac Lake wasn’t chosen as one of the water bodies for the pilot program, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from and apply the information obtained from other lakes facing similar threats. A common HAB-causing component among the plans focuses on wastewater and unfiltered stormwater runoff entering the lakes. These contributors provide existing algae with an extra boost of nutrients to thrive and lead to the harmful blooms. A key mitigation strategy is reducing the heavy nutrient influx that results from shoddy wastewater practices and storm runoff. The USF has supported research projects and educational and outreach efforts consistent with the Action Plans, supporting these efforts. Additional actions would need to be enacted by local government, including mandating the installation of stormwater reduction controls and the implementation of an inspection and maintenance program for near-shore septic systems.
What can you do?
Know it. HABs vary in appearance from scattered green dots in the water to long linear green streaks, pea soup, or spilled green paint, to blue-green or white coloration.
Avoid it. Take the following steps to limit your exposure:
- Don’t swim, fish, boat, or wade in areas with blooms.
- Don’t eat fish caught from areas with algae blooms.
- Don’t drink, bathe, wash dishes, or prepare food with water containing algae.
- If you, your family, or your pet have been in contact with a HAB, rinse with clean water and report any symptoms to your local health department. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting; skin, eye, or throat irritation; and allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.
Prevent it. You can do your part to lessen the chances of a bloom:
- Maintain your septic system to prevent wastewater from seeping into surface water.
- Maintain a native vegetative buffer along the lakefront and tributaries to prevent stormwater runoff from directly entering the lake.
- Avoid the use of fertilizers.
- Replace expanses of lawn with landscape patches of trees, shrubs, and mulch to capture and hold rainwater and divert on-site runoff and rain gutters to gardens or small depressions where water has time to infiltrate the soil.
- Reduce the total amount of impermeable surfaces by replacing them with natural walkways, gravel, or permeable pavements. Avoid the use of asphalt near the lake.