The Rise of Harmful Algal Blooms in New York

More often than not, algae serve as an essential part of marine ecosystems. Algae convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar through photosynthesis, serving as the energy base for all other organisms in an aquatic habitat. They also are susceptible to small changes in water quality, making them great indicators of environmental changes that occur in an ecosystem.

Algae blooms occur when algae grow rapidly and can cover large portions of bodies of water. They are not always harmful but can sometimes produce toxins that are detrimental to the water. These are known as Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) and often occur in nutrient-rich waters, especially when the weather is hot and calm.

Not only do HABs negatively affect our environmental health, but they also pose public health risks. Just a few weeks ago, Oregon dealt with toxins from a HAB that entered into the city’s tap water. Bottled water prices skyrocketed almost immediately, which is a terrifying sign of what the future could hold should this scenario become common.

In New York, HABs are rising at an alarming rate. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, there are currently 98 bodies of water with harmful blooms. Among these bodies of water include Dead Lake, a popular fishing spot where officials are advising to avoid eating fish caught in this area, and Moreau Lake, which closed its beach area in August after its third bloom of the summer.  Most often in New York, toxic algae blooms contain microcystin, which can lead to nausea, vomiting, skin and eye irritation among other harmful effects. If ingested, microcystin can damage the liver and even be deadly to animals.

One cause of HABs is agricultural runoff, which occurs when chemicals from fertilizer end up in our waterways. During rainstorms, nitrogen, and fertilizer other chemicals are pushed through sewer systems and can end up in Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) when there is too much rain. Overflow from combined sewer systems, which may contain stormwater that is filled with chemicals from fertilizer, is discharged into water bodies.  

Some houses in rural New York neighborhood leach nitrogen into waterways because they are not connected to a public sewer system. Houses with cesspools or old septic tanks don’t properly capture and treat wastewater, so nitrogen and other chemicals produced by waste end up in waterways.  

Another cause of HABs is climate change. As our planet warms, HABs are becoming more prevalent in waterways around the country – the worst of them on record occurring within the last decade. Climate change has caused heavier flooding and storms, increasing stormwater runoff. This causes nutrients from land, including phosphorus which is often found in fertilizers, to enter our waterways and set the ideal conditions for the growth of these harmful blooms.

In June, Governor Cuomo announced 12 tailored action plans to address the causes of HABs and minimize their threat. The plan includes implementing projects that reduce the conditions that fuel these blooms. The projects involve stormwater management upgrades, sewer expansions, and streambank erosion protection.

NYLCV will continue to advocate for policies that combat HABs including mitigating stormwater discharges, discourage use of chemical fertilizer during rainstorms, and encourage the replacement of ineffective cesspools with newer systems. We will also continue to educate the public on the dangers that they serve to the environment and public health.