Researchers studying harmful algal blooms are like chefs looking at a recipe.
HABs come from a certain set of ingredients mixed together in the right proportions, both short-term and long-term. Individual lakes can have characteristics that make them productive environments for algae, and there are related short-term ingredients that can cause blooms to form. Much of the ongoing work in this area aims to get a clearer picture of these different recipes, so we can understand how and why HABs form and what we can do to combat them. The good news is that we are not talking about all types of algae, many of which are beneficial to a lake, and we are talking about a problem that affects certain parts of lakes during certain times. Stakeholders also have helpful cookbooks to help them through the process – guidance documents such as the Chautauqua Lake Harmful Algal Bloom Action Plan and the HAB Research Guide.
New York State released them in 2018 and 2021, respectively, and they inform much of the work being done in the lake and watershed. When there’s a bloom and the water can start to look like spilled paint, it’s understandable that people ask “What are we doing to solve this problem? » These documents contain important answers to this question. Before discussing these questions, it may be helpful to remember that many people are asking the same question all over the world. A quick internet search for algae bloom will return dozens of recent stories confirming it. This is a significant and growing problem for many people.
The lake HAB plan is a detailed document that outlines many different topics. Looking at statewide trends gives us an idea of the different factors that can make a lake susceptible to excessive algae growth. This recipe includes such things as high nutrient levels, presence of certain species of mussels, climate, sunlight, wave and wind action, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, etc Some of these variables are generally stable from year to year, while others may change from day to day or hour to hour. Our lake’s unique geography, nutrient levels, plant and animal populations, and human activities give us a recipe that is generally good for algae growth. The HAB plan is an excellent source of information on these variables, as well as the monitoring and research that is done to understand them.
This brings us back to the question we started with, “What are we doing to solve this problem? » A lot of work is being done locally and at the state level to address the problem. Chautauqua Lake is fortunate to host several leading research teams working to increase our understanding of HABs and lake dynamics. Generally speaking, most in-lake solutions for reducing HABs are still in the research and development phase in New York State. A number of different approaches, such as ultrasonic technology, chemical treatments, or aeration, are being explored at the state level to help disrupt algae growth or manage nutrients. We even saw some of these innovative techniques tested on the lake. There is still some uncertainty about the effectiveness and state regulation of these tools. The HABs research guide notes that “DEC is actively researching innovative treatments for HABs and will use the results of these mitigation pilots and future mitigation pilots to further evaluate the use of multiple mitigation strategies.” For this reason, local stakeholders tend to follow the recommendations of the HAB plan which use existing, or one might say traditional, best management practices. These recommendations often focus on projects in the watershed (the area of land that drains to the lake) and related work to reduce nutrients.
Many of these are described by the lake plan as priority 1 projects, those that are “considered necessary to manage water quality and reduce HABs in Chautauqua Lake…” This list includes a wide range of techniques, as well as recommendations for funding, prioritization, and administration. It is encouraging to see that many of these types of Priority 1 projects are already completed, underway, or planned in our community. Extension of the public sewer to reduce nutrient loading is a prescribed measure and is currently underway along the west side of the lake. Recommendations include swale construction to reduce stormwater velocities and promote sediment and nutrient capture through check dams and native plants. This includes work in partnership with the Alliance on the recently completed Busti Swales Stabilization Project, as well as the upcoming Chautauqua Roadside Swales Stabilization Project. Ditch features like check dams and native plantings help reduce erosion and improve the quality of water sent to the lake. Stream stabilization and wetland conservation are an essential part of the HAB action plan and are the pillars of the watershed management strategies currently in use. The Chautauqua County Soil and Water Conservation District and Chautauqua Watershed Conservation are among the organizations working on this front, with soil and water focusing on many of the important agricultural management practices prescribed in guidance documents.
Algae are a natural and fundamental part of freshwater environments like our lake, but more and more often we are seeing the negative impacts of their excessive growth and the ability of some species to produce toxins. We’re not the only ones wondering what’s going on and what we can do about it. Today, even some lakes that we thought had poor recipes for algal growth are seeing blooms. Adirondack lakes, some of which feel virtually no impact from human development, have experienced HABs. Understanding these issues is complex, like so many other lake and watershed issues, and implementing effective solutions introduces another level of complexity. Guidance documents are not perfect prescriptions of what we should do, but they are valuable resources and give us a common framework to follow in the short and long term. These documents and other HAB resources can be found at chautauquaalliance.org/harmful-algal-blooms-habs/.