Aug 12 2014
When Algae Attacks: Murky Answers on State Water Safety
Blue-green algal bloom in Lake Erie.
Photo credit: NOAA
August 12, 2014
When Algae Attacks: Murky Answers on State Water Safety

Category

Environment

** After publishing this post, NYER did receive a response from the NYS Department of Health regarding their testing and treatment policies around cyanotoxins. Please see the update at the bottom.


Toledo, you’re in good company.

The same toxic algae that tainted the water for 400,000 Ohio residents earlier this month is on the rise in New York, too. Blue-green algae blooms have killed pets (at least one dog on Long Island, and possibly another in Essex County), sickened humans, and even clouded the waters of the iconic lakes in both Central and Prospect Parks.

Consuming or even coming into contact with these waters can cause serious health effects for people, pets, and wildlife. And because climate change is expected to make these blooms more frequent, the safety of water supplies throughout the state may be affected.

Tainted By Toxins

Blue-green algae is the common name for a category of algae-like organisms known as cyanobacteria, which occur naturally in freshwater. At low concentrations, they are both harmless and invisible.

This is not recommended. Ohio Sea Grant

Putting your hand in blue-green algae is not recommended. Ohio Sea Grant

But when nutrient levels in the water—particularly phosphorus and nitrogen—soar and combine with hot temperatures, cyanobacteria undergo a population explosion. These “blooms” turn waters shocking shades of pea green, and even more troublesome, can produce harmful toxins called microcystins.

Exposure may cause fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to microcystins—through skin contact, consumption, or respiration—“may cause a wide range of symptoms in humans including fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.”

High-level exposure can cause seizures, liver failure, respiratory arrest, and death. There is also evidence that long-term exposure may cause cancer.

“If you see it, avoid it,” advises the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the state’s lead environmental agency. That goes for pets and livestock as well.

A Statewide Situation

Since 2009, New York has been building one of the most robust algae monitoring programs in the country, thanks to a five-year, $750,000 federal grant to the Department of Health. The DEC website maintains a running list of active cyanotoxin notices (and an archive of past blooms), and enables the general public to report their own findings.

According to the NYS DEC, since 2012 “Harmful Algal Blooms” have been found in more than 140 recreation areas, reservoirs, lakes, and ponds in all parts of the state; 34 counties have reported blooms this year alone.

Counties shaded in green have had a suspicious or confirmed blue-green algal bloom in 2014.

Counties shaded in green have had a suspicious or confirmed blue-green algal bloom in 2014.

Given the transient nature of the blooms and the DEC’s inability to test every single body of water regularly, it’s likely that many other blue-green algae blooms have come and gone undocumented.

When grant funding for this program runs out in 2016, will the DEC be able to continue monitoring for algal outbreaks? Peter Constantakes, spokesperson for the NYS DEC says yes. “We will continue to seek funding for monitoring and outreach, [and we will] continue to partner with SUNY Stony Brook and other state agencies to gather data.”

Is NYS Water Safe?

As the situation in Ohio has shown, toxic algal blooms can do more than just look gnarly: large eruptions can disrupt entire cities and pose a significant threat to drinking water supplies. This vulnerability is due in large part to the fact that there are no agreed upon methods to test or treat drinking water for mycrocystin toxins.

According to the EPA, “no federal regulatory guidelines for cyanobacteria or their toxins in drinking water or recreational waters exist at this time in the United States.” And even if you can find the toxins, removing them is complicated.

“Drinking water operators must know the growth patterns and species of cyanobacteria that dominates the bloom, the properties of the cyanotoxins… and the most effective treatment process,” the EPA notes. Applying the wrong treatment process at the wrong time could actually release more toxins into the water source.

So, could the situation in Toledo play out in New York State? The answers are murky.

Algal bloom in Sodus Bay, in Wayne County, NY. Jay Ross/Save Our Sodus Association

Algal bloom in Sodus Bay, in Wayne County, NY. Jay Ross/Save Our Sodus Association

In the last two years, toxic blooms have been found in seven drinking water reservoirs, including the Tomhannock and Basic Creek which supply drinking water for thousands of people in Troy, Albany, and Rensselaer.

Repeated attempts over the last week to contact the DEC and the NYS Department of Health with regard to reservoir sampling, water treatment, and algal risks have been unsuccessful. The Albany and Rensselaer County Departments of Health have been equally hushed.

Toxic blooms have been found in seven New York State drinking water reservoirs.

From publicly available documents, it does not appear that the New York Department of Health has an official mycrocystin testing or removal protocol. The DOH website states that “public water supplies regularly test for a variety of man-made chemicals, naturally occurring contaminants, physical characteristics and microbial pathogens;” mycrocystins are not included on that list.

In general, it seems that reservoir testing for algal toxins happens on a case-by-case basis when blooms are observed. But without an official response from the DOH, one is left to wonder at the efficacy and safety of such an informal program.

**Please see below for an official response from the DOH.

Don’t Worry, NYC

By contrast, New York City is confident that algal blooms are not an issue. Adam Bosch, spokesperson for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, assures New York City residents that there is no need to worry. “The answer is simple,” he states. “We just don’t have algae in New York City reservoirs.”

“NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms,” Bosch continues. For the last 20 years, the DEP has worked to protect the forests and lands surrounding the reservoirs and rivers, replacing septic systems, developing a robust forestry program, and working with agricultural producers to reduce run-off.

NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms.

“These healthy forests suck up all the extra nutrients and are so efficient that you don’t even find algal blooms in the headwaters,” Bosch said. Bill Wegner, staff scientist with Riverkeeper, confirms the DEP’s claims. “The water bodies have to be eutrophic, meaning nutrient-loaded [in order to have algae], and there are no eutrophic reservoirs that are part of the New York City water supply.”

And on the off chance that a bloom did develop? Weekly and monthly sampling of key points in the system means that New York City water is well-tested, some 550,000 times each year. And because the City’s water is pulled from a vast system of 19 reservoirs and three lakes, Bosch reassures that the DEP could switch one off easily without feeling an impact.

Behind the Blooms

Scientists point to a constellation of causes for the increase in blue-green algae blooms. Agricultural runoff (mostly fertilizer and manure), sediment erosion, flows from sewage treatment plants and septic tanks, and runoff from lawns all increase nutrient loads in our lakes and ponds.

And climate change is exacerbating the issue. The increased frequency of heavy rains and flash flooding are causing quick influxes of runoff into our water bodies, while higher summer temperatures create the ideal conditions for algal growth.

Algae bloom warning at Prospect Park. Photo credit: Emily Manley / NYER

Algae bloom warning at Prospect Park. Photo credit: Emily Manley / NYER

“Blooms are going to be longer and more intense,” says Hans Paerl, professor of marine and environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina. “It’s all part of the price we’re paying for climate change.”

Even when the blooms run out of fuel and die off, they can still cause trouble. As the algae sinks to the bottom, bacteria feasts on the decaying matter. This removes oxygen from the water, resulting in “dead zones” which cannot sustain any life.

The Bright Side

There is no doubt that toxic algae is a growing global concern. The EPA calls them a “major environmental problem in all 50 states” and a 2014 report by the National Wildlife Federation found that a majority of the states reporting blooms consider it a “serious” situation.

But, unlike many environmental issues, this is a problem with a relatively attainable solution. New York City’s protected watershed is a case in point.

Fixing the algal bloom explosion throughout New York State will require a significant reduction in the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen entering our water bodies. This means new guidelines for how farmers (and homeowners) apply fertilizer, better livestock management, and tighter control over sewage treatment plants (and combined sewage overflows).

NYER072814_2

Blue-green algal bloom in Lake Erie. Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Federal action will be needed, too. This past May, Senator Chuck Schumer urged the EPA to issue guidance and recommendations to local water treatment plants on how best to test for and treat these cyanotoxins. He also pressed the EPA to develop water quality criteria for cyanotoxin levels in ambient water so that states like New York can better identify contaminated lakes and implement programs that will improve water quality.

**An Update From the NYS Department of Health

After publishing this post, NYER did receive a response from the NYS Department of Health regarding their testing and treatment policies around cyanotoxins.

Currently, the DOH tests drinking water for cyanotoxins “on a case-by-case basis,” if there is a report from the DEC of a bloom in close proximity to water intake pipes. Factors that may impact this decision include “size and extent of the bloom relative to the drinking water intake, toxin levels in the bloom, depth of the drinking water intake, duration of the bloom, [and] treatment at the water system.”

Those water samples are analyzed through a partnership with SUNY ESF, and if toxins are found, the DOH will provide guidance to water treatment plant operators and issue a public notification. In general, the DOH feels that conventional drinking water treatment, “consisting of flocculation, coagulation, sedimentation and filtration” is effective at removing any harmful algal cells. However, if the toxins have dissolved into the water, as was the case in Toledo, “additional treatment consisting of activated carbon filtration and/or advanced oxidative processes may be needed. “

A spokesman from the DOH reiterates our earlier point that “there are currently no state or federal drinking water standards or guidance values for cyanotoxins.”

The DOH confirms that the blooms that occurred in the Basic and Tomhannock reservoirs last year did not have any impact on drinking water delivered to consumers. Basic Creek Reservoir is a “back-up source” and not a primary water supply, while the bloom in the Tomhannock was “very localized and away from the drinking water intake.”

 

Blue-green algal bloom in Lake Erie.
Photo credit: NOAA