Cuomo begins to implement measures to combat toxic algae in NY

Legislative Gazette photo by Jessica Curcio

New York has adopted a new initiative to combat toxic algae that threatens public health and the environment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke at the first of four regional summits that will address the Harmful Algal Blooms that have been threatening public health as they appear with more frequently across New York.

These summits are part of Cuomo’s $65 million four-point initiative to “aggressively combat harmful algal blooms,” the 12th proposal of his State of the State Address. This initiative augments the state’s $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act.

Speaking to a crowd of local officials and scientists at SUNY New Paltz on Feb. 27, Cuomo made note of the escalation of dangerous algal blooms in the state.

In 2015 there were 35 cases of harmful algae in the state. In 2016 the algae began turning up in drinking water; last year more than 100 beaches in the state were closed due to the toxin.

Cuomo views Ulster County as an appropriate location to kick off the summits because, as County Executive Mike Hein noted, this area has the richest history of environmentalism in the state. The Town of New Paltz has also experienced a harmful algal bloom in the Wallkill River, which runs through near the village and other developed areas.

Some algal blooms release toxins into the water, exposing wildlife, people and pets to those poisons. Other blooms deprive the water of its oxygen content, causing loss of aquatic species like fish.

The most dangerous type to humans are those that release toxins, which can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation all the way up to neurological effects and even death.

Human health isn’t the only thing at risk, Cuomo noted. Closing beaches affects the state economy, and many of the regions most affected by harmful algal blooms rely on tourism for income.

The initiative seeks to study at 12 lakes that  provide drinking water for a municipality that are affected by dangerous algae blooms. The goal is to determine a definitive cause and how to best address the problem.

The lakes are categorized by their region:

The West region consists of Conesus Lake, Honeoye Lake and Chautauqua Lake.

The Central region contains Owasco Lake, Skaneateles Lake and Cayuga Lake.

The North County focuses on Lake Champlain at Port Henry, The Lake Champlain Isle La   Motte Watershed and Lake George.

The Greater Hudson Valley group, the focus of the New Paltz speech, is Lake Carmel, Palmer Lake, Putnam Lake and the Monhagen Brook watershed.

The initiative seeks to understand the complex causes of the HABs. Algal blooms are primarily caused by run-off, excess nitrogen, and pollution. However when multiple causes are present there is less certainty of the effect it has on the water ecosystem.

“What causes HABs? Damned if we know,” Cuomo said to the crowd.  “That’s why you’re here. We know the elements that cause HABs, but it’s a little different in different situations and it’s never quite the same.”

The funding for the project provides $500,000 per lake which will be used to create “immediate action plans to reduce sources of pollution that spark algal blooms,” according to the State of the State address. Another $60 million will be dispersed as grant funding to enact these action plans.

Part of these action plans will be developing new treatment technologies, as current ones are not capable of guaranteeing water free from algal contaminants. Cuomo made note that contaminants can not simply be filtered out, calling filtering a “Pandora’s box of issues,” as no manufacturer is willing to guarantee that their filters will get 100 percent of the contaminants.

By studying and focusing on 12 of the worst-case scenarios in the state, there is hope that a more effective technology can be implemented.

The initiative is being led by the State’s Water Quality Rapid Response Team, headed by Commissioner Basil Seggos of the Department of Environmental Conservation and Commissioner Howard Zucker of the Department of Health. The joint operation combines research talents from across the county with in-state experts from SUNY ESF and the SUNY Stony Brook Center for Clean Water Technology.

The next summit takes place place at SUNY ESF in Syracuse on March 6 from 6 p.m.- 8 p.m.