Greg Boyer

Greg Boyer, professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, discusses harmful algal blooms at Cayuga Community College Monday.

AUBURN — Greg Boyer talks about harmful algal blooms like they are people. They like warm water. They like to float, and they really, really like to eat.

It's people, Boyer said, that are feeding them.

Speaking before a scattered crowd at Cayuga Community College Monday night, the professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium gave a similar rundown about toxic blooms as he gave in October to an audience at Skaneateles High School. 

Monday night's talk, however, focused more on Owasco Lake and was sponsored by the agricultural-centered water quality group, Partners for Healthy Watersheds. Through an anonymous online platform, audience members could send in questions for Boyer to answer.

When asked about why the toxic blooms are happening more frequently, and what has changed over the years, Boyer said no one was going to like his response.

"People," he said. "We simply, the demand for waterfront has become so much more. People are putting so much more pressure on the lake. Agriculture has become so much more intensive. CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) have become so much more common. All this has to do with the need increasing of feeding people, the demand of the watershed. It's not bad. It's just saying OK what can be get by with 20 years ago just isn't appropriate for the demands right now. So i think that's really why we're seeing the increase."

And blooms are increasing. Boyer said this was the first time all 11 Finger Lakes were listed on the state Department of Environmental Conservation's harmful algal bloom notification page.

Some questions focused on nutrients and farming best management practices. Best management practices are generally water pollution preventions such as a vegetative buffer strip or a manure storage lagoon. 

Are today's enough? 

"No," Boyer said. "BMPs have to evolve."

Boyer said they are much better, however, than they were decades ago. He highly recommended farmers plant buffer strips, adding that radishes really like to take up nutrients. 

While farms have more to do, so do lake shore residents and property owners. Boyer said algae doesn't care what kind of nutrients it dines on. It could be from seagull and goose poop. It could be from dog poop. It could be from lawn fertilizer, septic systems or any other number of sources. Harmful algae are not picky eaters.

Fish, Boyer added, have evolved along with algal toxins. They don't die from the toxins as a pet or animal might, but he wouldn't recommend eating the fish, at least not a whole one. Studies have shown the toxins tend to congregate in the liver, so if a fish is cleaned well and filleted, Boyer said it might be OK, but "I don't like fish that much," he added.

While chlorine has kept algal toxins from Skaneateles Lake drinking water and carbon treatment systems have kept them from Owasco Lake's, Boyer said ultimately watersheds need to be cleaned up to tackle the source of the problem. 

"There's always hope," he said, but "it's probably not going to take you one year to fix it."

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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