September 23, 2021

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2021/9/3 - HABs

The toxic algae's slimy invasion
Q&A with NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

WTNY reached out to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation for comments on the recent explosion of HABS (Harmful Algae Blooms) in the Oswego/Finger Lakes region. This is an email reply to our questions.

Is the invasion of HABs blooms in the Oswego/Finger Lakes region unusual?

HABs occurrences in the Finger Lakes are not uncommon this time of year. Peak HABs season in New York runs from late August through early September. Many of the Finger Lakes have extensive monitoring networks including volunteers trained to look for HABs and report them to DEC through our NYHABs portal (see below). At the end of the season, DEC will be able to better assess and compare this year to prior years.

Legacy nutrients can take decades to clear from these large lakes. The HABs we are seeing today are likely feeding off nutrients that ran off the landscape many years ago. The impact of invasive Quagga mussels on bloom concentration in the Finger Lakes is a complicated theory currently being studied by many researchers around the world.

Finger Lakes are a valuable economic region in NYS, how are the proliferation of HABs impacting tourism demand this year?

Refer to ESD or local tourism board.

What factors are contributing to these blooms, and can they be mitigated?

HABs are likely triggered by 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. Depending on the weather and the characteristics of the lake, HABs may be short-lived (appearing and disappearing in hours) or long-lived (persisting for several weeks or more). While the exact cause of HABs is not fully understood, HABs usually occur in waters high in phosphorus and/or nitrogen. New York State has many programs and activities to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen from entering the water from surrounding lands, including stormwater permitting programs, funding for water quality improvement projects, and a nutrient law that restricts the use of phosphorus lawn fertilizer. Please find additional info on from DEC’s website: Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).

How does the state conduct testing of the water for dissolved toxins? (I am looking for frequency of testing and system for communicating with the public around the lake)

DEC and DOH partnered to establish the most comprehensive HAB surveillance and alert program in the country. In June 2019, New York State launched a new online HABs map and reporting system for the public. NYHABS reporting system features an interactive map that is updated daily with reports of HABs, as well as a new public reporting form. This system relies on visual reporting to allow for near real-time notification of the public regarding where HABs are occurring.

The DEC Citizen Statewide Lake Assessment Program and the Lake Classification and Inventory Program contributed extensively to HABs reporting. In addition, as in previous years, DOH, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, SUNY ESF, Stony Brook University, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and other agencies and organizations were instrumental in documenting HABs in New York in 2020. Approximately 800 volunteers help to monitor and report HABs in New York State.

DEC encourages New Yorkers to “KNOW IT, AVOID IT, REPORT IT.” KNOW IT – naturally occurring harmful algal blooms, ‘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 – People, pets and livestock should avoid contact with water that is discolored or has algal scums on the surface. REPORT IT – If members of the public suspect a HAB, report it through the NYHABs online reporting form available on DEC’s website.

HABs can cause health effects in people and animals when water with blooms is touched, swallowed, or when airborne droplets are inhaled. For more information please visit NYS Department of Health's HAB page. Symptoms or health concerns related to HABs should be reported to DOH at The public is encouraged to contact the local health department with any reports of health effects (human or animal).

DEC HABs Brochure and FAQs

Summary of 2020 Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Notification Season

DEC has posted a summary of the 2020 Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) notices to the HABs Archive webpage. During 2020, 184 waterbodies statewide were listed on the NY HABs System (NYHABS). Nearly 2,000 HAB reports were collected by DEC and its partners, and of these, over 900 met DEC criteria for a HAB. The reports ranged from a single observation to widespread blooms that were persistent throughout the season. 

Historical data is available on Open NY (Search the catalog for "Harmful Algal Blooms"). Also, the 2012-2019 HABs Archive Summary includes HAB reports since DEC began the HABs Program.

Cayuga Lake draft Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)

Earlier this year, working with state and local partners, DEC proposed a nutrient pollution-reduction “budget” for Cayuga Lake to help protect drinking water quality and restore the lake’s southern end for recreation. This budget for the lake—a draft Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)—provides a detailed, scientific analysis of phosphorus pollutant sources and recommends a 30 percent reduction of phosphorus loads to the Cayuga Lake watershed. The draft TMDL incorporates years of research, modeling, and water quality analyses to bolster strategies to reduce nutrients in the watershed.

Since 2017, New York State has invested more than $6 million in water quality improvements in Cayuga Lake’s watershed through the Water Quality Improvement Project program and other programs. Completed projects include streambank stabilizations, septic maintenance and pump-out, stormwater mapping in Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) areas, and installation of agricultural best management practices.

Backed by billions of dollars in investments, New York State is fiercely committed to protecting water quality. We’ve made remarkable progress in combatting HABs, but we know our work is not done. With partners at all levels of government, academia, and industry, New York is pioneering cutting-edge solutions to respond to these blooms and the threats they pose to public health and the environment.

 More Information

Links to Harmful Algal Bloom Action Plans for Owasco, Cayuga, and Skaneateles are below:

Owasco Lake Harmful Algal Bloom Action Plan (PDF)

Cayuga Lake Harmful Algal Bloom Action Plan (PDF)

Skaneateles Lake Harmful Algal Bloom Action Plan (PDF)

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