A suspected harmful algal bloom reported in Cayuga Lake in Seneca County, as shown by the state Department of Environmental Conservation's HABs map.

It finally feels like summer with the recent warm, sunny July weather finally arriving. Along with the warmer weather has been the confirmation of harmful algal blooms in Cayuga Lake, causing many to wonder when and where another bloom may be reported.

To keep the public informed, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has launched a new HABs notification page at dec.ny.gov/press/117161.html. Around this time last year, there were a number of freshwater lakes across New York state experiencing blooms. As of July 10, Owasco and Skaneateles lakes have not reported a bloom; however, Cayuga Lake has reported widespread blooms.

Before we dive into HABs, let’s first consider that algae are single-cell aquatic plants that contain chlorophyll, yet they lack normal plant parts like stems, roots and leaves. Most algae are harmless and are an important part of the aquatic food chain. In large numbers, called blooms, they can upset the balance of the lake.

The majority of HABs experienced in the Finger Lakes are from cyanobacteria, referred to as blue-green algae; but they are not really algae. Cyanobacteria are actually a type of bacteria that contain chlorophyll, like plants, allowing them to produce their own energy through photosynthesis.

Cyanobacteria are small, usually single-cell organisms that grow in colonies. It is only when the colonies become large that we notice them. These interesting organisms are survivors and have been around for several billion years. Over time, they have adapted to their environment.

There are about 1,500 species of cyanobacteria worldwide. They are believed to be one of the earliest lifeforms to exist on Earth. Today, they can be found almost everywhere, including the ocean, fresh water and even on rocks!

Only a small percentage of the different species of cyanobacteria are capable of producing toxins which can be harmful to people, livestock and pets. These toxins, called cyanotoxins, can affect the nervous system or cause liver damage if consumed in high quantities. Some people are sensitive to cyanobacteria, which can result in a skin irritation if they come in contact with it.

To be clear, we are talking about toxins and not poison. Toxins and poisons are two different things; yet there are similarities. A toxin is a harmful substance that is produced by a living organism and is considered to be natural. Why an organism will produce a toxin is not completely understood, but the toxin undoubtedly serves a purpose for the organism producing it. A poison is a chemical that is harmful to health and it can occur naturally or be man-made. Poisons can have a simple or complex chemical structure; yet toxins generally have a complex chemical structure because they are produced naturally.

Since cyanotoxins are produced by a living organism, they are quite complex and are specific to the species of cyanobacteria that produces them. Cyanobacteria become a problem in our fresh water lakes when there are excess nutrients; generally, increased amounts of phosphorus favor blooms. Blooms are also favored when weather conditions are hot and the winds are calm.

While we cannot control the weather, we can work toward reducing nutrients entering our water bodies. Nutrients can enter a water body from a variety of sources, which can include waste from livestock, pets and waterfowl populations; lake shore septic systems; improper disposal of lawn clippings and leaves; sediment from eroding stream banks and road ditches; and commercial fertilizer applied to lawns, golf courses and agricultural fields. Additionally, invasive species found in the lake, such as zebra and quagga mussels, can have an influence on phosphorus amounts.

Some actions to reduce potential nutrient sources include properly maintaining and upgrading septic systems within 250 feet of shoreline and ensuring the septic system is properly sized for occupancy; implementing conservation efforts to reduce stream bank, road ditch and shoreline erosion; increasing buffers and riparian zones along waterways on both agricultural and residential lands; picking up pet waste, no matter how big or small; and keeping fire pits and bonfires away from lake shore or stream edges.

On the Cayuga County Health Department website, at cayugacounty.us/742/harmful-algal-blooms, is a good resource to follow HABs this season. In addition to alerts, there are several videos and links about cyanobacteria. The website also provides links to learning what a HAB and non-HAB bloom looks like, plus suggestions for avoiding HABs and how to report a suspected HAB.

While the risk of HABs cannot be completely eliminated, together we can take steps to remain safe in the event of a harmful algal bloom while improving and benefiting the environment at the same time.

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Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.