drip home

toxic finger lakes

By Cheyenne Carter

“No one knows where they start, but we’ve found blooms out in the middle of the lake,” says Noah Mark, a scientist from Community Science Institute based in Ithaca, NY. Blue green algae, also called HABs (harmful algal blooms), are 3.8 billion-year-old cyanobacteria. HABs have become a major problem in Ithaca, NY. This past summer, authorities banned swimming whenever large blooms started producing microcystin, a hepatotoxin. Microcystins have become widespread in the Finger Lakes region, in every great lake and coastal state, and across the globe due to the extended warmth our climate has been experiencing.

Community Science Institute, a nonprofit but commercial lab, began a study this past March when the United States Environmental Protection Agency approved testing for every one out of fifty different microcystins. Once a week a team comprised of employees and volunteers go out to collect water that has potential blooms to be tested. CSI then looks to see how dense the blooms are, while also looking for patterns and causes. The biggest question that everyone faces is: What are the causes of these HABs? So far, a point source hasn’t been found that causes the cyanobacteria to flourish and produce toxins, but the dynamics of weather during the summer have created a perfect environment: hot temperatures, sunlight, nutrients, and calm water after storms where heavy rains push nutrients from the creeks into the lake. Nutrients are hardest to track even when people are consistently scanning the shore line looking for patterns. The manager of Bolton Point Water System has been trained to look for and identify the blooms (because they’re hard to differentiate from other algae) and they’re constantly testing the water to make sure HABs aren’t entering the plant. The manager said they have the HABs high on their radar because, “The lake is usually in the 50’s (Fahrenheit), but this year there have been spikes into the 70’s with longer stretches of warmth.”

Community Science Institute has only gotten one call about the toxins harming a dog and haven’t seen any other harmful cases, although it’s important to keep in mind that they can cause liver and kidney damage, rashes, and redness. They’re hoping to get more funds and approval from the EPA to test for other microcystins. The town of Ithaca has a protocol of shutting down the lake for recreational swimming when the amount of cyanobacteria is 4 micrograms or more. These blooms have been happening for a while, but no one’s ever seen it on this large of a scale in Ithaca before. It’s important that we reach awareness to our community and educate ourselves on how to deal with this issue because our climate isn’t getting any cooler.

Terms To Know

Beta-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) - a toxin produced by Cyanobacteria that can be a factor in causing neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

Blue-Green Algae - also called Cyanobacteria, blue-green algae is a type of bacteria that photosynthesizes like algae and has the same food source, but is not actually algae.

Cyanotoxins - toxins produced when Cyanobacteria blooms. When exposed to humans over a long period of time, it can cause illnesses and rashes on the skin, and can be fatal.

Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) - these occur when colonies of algae grow out of control, producing toxic or harmful effects on people, marine animals and organisms, and birds. Human illnesses caused by the algae can be incapacitating or even fatal.

Hepatotoxin - cause direct harm to the liver by bonding covalently to cellular macromolecules.

Macromolecule - polymers built from subunits in a specific sequence.

Microcystin - a toxin produced by Cyanobacteria. When released, toxins can linger for weeks to months. Microcystin is always toxic to humans.

What is Ithaca Doing about it?

By Calvin Yohannan

What happens when a city is forced to deal with water quality issues? Do they recognize the issue at all? If they do, is it handled well? Is it transparent?

Unfortunately, many communities across the country face urgent water quality issues, and the issues are neither transparent nor handled with a plan of action at all. For Ithaca residents, they are lucky enough to have a plan of action from both the local and state level, as well as acknowledgement from the governor himself that Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are indeed an issue for New York State, specifically Ithaca area residents.

To learn more about what the local municipality is doing to deal with HABs in Cayuga Lake, I reached out to Glenn Ratajczak, the Production Manager at Bolton Point Municipal Water System. Glenn invited us to tour the facility, located on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, just a couple miles north of downtown Ithaca.

We toured the facility in its entirety, including the lab where they test the water quality, publishing the results online in real time. Ratajczak acknowledged that HABs were a problem in the lake the past two summers, going as far as to say, “It is one of my top three main concerns moving forward.” The good news for Ithaca residents is that those providing and treating the water are aware of the blooms and are working towards finding solutions to the problem. The bad news is that there is not extensive research showing what cause HABs in Cayuga Lake. We know that warm weather, combined with a lack of rain and wind increase the intensity of a bloom, but the sources are still unknown for the blooms in Cayuga Lake.

Bolton Point has taken steps to deal with the algae blooms that have already hurt the lake. For example, Ratajczak mentioned a new tool called the floral prope, which measures algae activity and location. Most HABs occur at the surface of shallower waters, and because the southern portion of the lake is shallower, they are concentrated in the south, near the shores of Ithaca. Because the pump importing water from the lake into the facility sits at 70 feet deep, HABs are not an immediate threat to Ithaca drinking water due to their growth occurring on the surface. However, Ratajczak did acknowledge that some of the blooms have begun spreading from the surface deeper into the lake, making it next to impossible to pinpoint the location and extent of the bloom.

This is not an isolated issue for Cayuga Lake; many of the Finger Lakes and regions in Upstate New York are dealing with HABs, and because of this, there has to be lines of communication between municipalities, state level officials, and academics. Ratajczak is not going into a panic yet about the HABs, but highlighted that him and his team are working with urgency. “The people who work at Bolton Point are extremely hard working and dedicated, and despite the recent increase in HABs, this is still some of the best quality water, and yes, even better than bottled water,” he stated.

While the treatment facility seemed to have a grip on the issue, some Ithaca residents are wary of the state of the water within the area. Ithaca parent Jessica Ristow has always been skeptical of the water source, “It’s a known thing throughout the community that our water is not always up to where it should be in terms of quality. I don’t know a ton about the issue but I know enough and am skeptical enough that I bought a filter for our drinking water years ago.”

While the public and the people who run the plants seem to have a different opinion on the severity of the drinking water quality, one thing remains: HABs in Ithaca will continue to become more of a problem as the climate crisis progresses.

map of HABS

Where is this happening?

All over the lake…


Blue Faucet: Location of Bolton Point Water Treatment Facility

Red Skull: Location of confirmed dead zone in August and September 2018

Green Shower: Location of municipality/village that receives water from Bolton Point

Lack of Government Urgency in Policy Changes

By Abagail Mejia

Perhaps some can call Ithaca’s water the very heart of the town. Water from Cayuga Lake is utilized everywhere--when we shower, drink, go boating, or even eat. It’s what keeps human and natural ecosystems alive. Without usable water, the delicate balance of these ecosystems could slow to a halt. It is up to the New York State government to constantly monitor the water and ensure its optimal quality. Some policies, however, are not up to date with current water conditions. An apparent lack of urgency to change these policies, combined with an increasing amount of HABs, is proof that change is necessary. Taughannock Falls State Park was forced to close this past July with dangerously high levels of HABs present in the water. Recent reports showed that there were about 100 toxic algal blooms in Cayuga Lake just this year alone. New York State county health departments have “stopped issuing health bulletins and advised the public to instead call beaches to learn their status before visiting” (“Toxic Algae…”, PressConnects). Policies already in place are in dire need of improvement, to help protect our waters, and keep our town and wildlife safe.

Numerous resources are already dedicated to the constant surveillance of our waters. According to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, assistance is provided for water suppliers and public outreach through the Know It, Avoid It, Report It campaign. They also have reports on HAB occurrences and related cases of illness, as well as summaries on the state’s funding. The government is also required to comply to the Clean Water Act of 1972, which sets the standards of what is considered safely consumable water (Meyer, “How the U.S.…”). New York State joined over ten other states in the Right to Know Act, which requires public notification of sewage water treatments (Vedachalam, “Sewage Pollution…”).

Additionally, the New York government proposed a specific plan of action made to attack HABs in Cayuga Lake. The plan is divided into four parts: identify affected areas, meet in regional summits, create an action plan, and implement said plan. This initiative would involve action on several bodies of water throughout upstate New York, including Cayuga Lake, costing estimated $60 million dollars. For Cayuga Lake, the goal is to implement and improve various programs to control HABs in the lake and its watershed area, including a septic system inspection program, a pilot program for Best Management Practices (BMPs), and livestock exclusion programs (Harmful Algal Bloom… 3).

However, despite all these plans taking place, there is an apparent lack of transparency within the government. With the general public’s lack of awareness of the negative consequences of HAB exposure, it is no wonder that ,since 2016, there were almost 70 reported cases of HAB-related illnesses or deaths (“Toxic Algae,” PressConnects). Due to the long-term nature of the four-point initiative, there will be no immediate policy changes, despite the urgency. Given the political climate under our current administration, it will also be difficult to move forward any new laws at a national level as funding has been significantly cut from the EPA’s budget (Meyer, “How the U.S.…”).

Listen to our in depth reporting podcast from Cheyenne Carter who highlights what New York State is doing to prevent HABs in the future.

the blooming monster

By Isabel Schulman

“It’s what I imagine goes on in areas of natural disasters. Stores entirely sold out of water, with neighbors selling a single bottle for $40” This is the scene that Toledo, OH, resident Jourdyn McQueary had to endure for two days in the summer of 2014 when her hometown’s entire water supply was shut down due to blue-green algae in the intake pipes.

Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, are not new to the United States. In 2017 alone, there was 169 algal blooms reported in 40 different states. Florida alone had 51 HABs in 2016, which prompted a state of emergency in four counties. It wasn’t always this way though; we used to have decades between algal blooms. Now, with warmer water, heat waves, and extreme weather as a result of climate change, we can expect 5 a year, though often there’s more.

With HABs intensified by activities like farm runoff and leakage from sewers, areas like Toledo and other Midwestern cities suffer blooms frequently.

“We spent many summers at Lake Erie, swimming, paddle boarding, or just walking along the shore with my dogs and my friends,” McQueary recalled of her times at Lake Erie. Recently  though, portions of Lake Erie she swims in are being shut down.

Though testing for algal blooms isn’t required by state or federal law, Jourdyn’s hometown had to step in to protect both its citizens and the animal inhabitants of Toledo. High doses of HABs in humans can cause serious damage to the liver and the nervous system.

HABs also occur in drought-prone areas like Utah, resulting in shallow reservoirs in the summer that warm much faster than usual. These water bodies warming earlier and staying warm longer, increase algal bloom outbreaks.

No one observed the HABs of Utah more intensely than Brigham Young University professor Bradley Geary, who has been monitoring Utah Lake’s algal content since 2016, when he first noted a cyanobacteria count of over 10 million ppm.

“We were getting reports of hundreds of people pouring into the Emergency Rooms with cases of skin rash, vomiting, and diarrhea.” Since that time Geary has kept an active record of yearly cyanobacteria in Utah.

Major storms cause increased levels of HABs, and while Utah and Ohio don’t have much experience in these intense weather events, the southern coast of North America definitely fits into that category with its increasingly frequent storm surges. Intense rainstorms force nutrients trapped at the bottom of the water to mix with those streaming in from runoff.

HABs can kill wildlife and make beaches noxious to visitors, a detrimental problem to areas like Florida which rely heavily on tourist revenues. This past year, eight manatees washed ashore with stomachs full of algae, shocking local beachgoers.  

This isn’t the first time HABs have caused public outrage. In 1990, 200 dead dolphins washed ashore in Mexico with stomachs full of algae. The ten days of news coverage showing rotting, colorless dolphins heightened public awareness of the damage blooms can have on our natural ecosystem.

Because agricultural runoff heightens HABs, those dead dolphins are not going away anytime soon.

There must be a serious change in the disposal of chemicals and manure, as well as a long-term plan to lower the variability of the magnitude of seasons.

If we do not limit runoff, we are going to lose our favorite lakes, continue to kill our animals, and face increased contamination of drinking water.

Why should you care?

By Lilly Christian

The wind blows hair into my face, gently tickling my skin as I lay in the sun on Cayuga Lake’s East Shore. My skin glistens as I dry off on a dark boulder in the hot, sticky July heat. I can hear dogs barking, playing in the cool freshwater to my right. It’s a gorgeous day, completely living up to the clichéd “Ithaca is gorges” mantra that everyone around here constantly says. Water drips from my toes as they dangle in the lake. I lean my head back and sigh, delighted by the cool temperature of the water.

It’s summer in Ithaca, and the heat here rivals the cold of the winter, creating a dichotomy of drastic weather that varies from season to season. In the summer, there’s always something to do here, whether it’s swimming and hiking in the gorges or coming to East Shore for a quick dip after work. However, there’s one thing I haven’t heard about; harmful algae blooms, or HABs, have begun to plague Cayuga Lake.

This infestation isn’t actually made up of algae, as its name would suggest; it’s really multiple blooms of a bacteria called cyanobacteria, also known as Blue-Green algae, due to its distinctively-colored scum. Blue-Green algae photosynthesizes and uses the same food source that algae does: phosphorus and nitrogen. It gets out of hand when phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from synthetic fertilizers used in nearby farms enter the water, depositing extra phosphorus and nitrogen into the water where the bacteria grows. Cyanobacteria can produce toxins called cyanotoxins, which, with enough exposure, can lead to horrible skin rashes, as well as gastrointestinal and hay fever-like symptoms. Prolonged exposure to a toxin called beta-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA, can even be an environmental factor in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS. Blue-Green algae isn’t a bad bacteria, though; it can even be good. When conditions are right, however, cyanobacteria blooms and creates toxins that can kill humans and animals.

Hundreds of thousands of people swim and boat in Cayuga Lake every day during the summer, as its cool temperature contrasts the heat and humidity that the sun radiates all day long. Long-term recreational exposure to cyanotoxins can cause painful rashes on humans. In animals, however, the illness that is produced from the cyanotoxins can be even more severe. Dogs, for example, can be more susceptible because “their bodies are smaller and they tend to swallow more water [when swimming],” says a press release from the city of Madison, Wisconsin, where cyanobacteria has taken over. We can’t control how our dogs swim, so maybe we shouldn’t let them swim in HAB areas like Madison and Cayuga.

But how will this affect our recreation, and how can it be controlled? I enjoy swimming in Cayuga Lake, and my peers and other Ithacans do as well. If humans are unsafe swimming in these waters, then we must figure out ways to make the water safe again, or the tourism industry in Ithaca during the summer will suffer greatly. People won’t want to (and shouldn’t be allowed to) rent kayaks along the shores of the lake, and small businesses will go under. Recreation will decline. To find a solution, more testing of the water must be done to determine safe areas. We need to band together as a community to save both our lake and economy. We must create policy to regulate the amount of synthetic fertilizers that we allow into the lake. Only then will the lake be fully safe for recreation once again.


What will you do?