Halfman on Algae Blooms
Posted on Monday, September 30, 2013
Professor of Geoscience John Halfman was recently quoted in an article that appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle, the Press and Sun Bulletin of Binghamton, and the Star Gazette of Elmira. The article covers the topic of algae blooms that can be accompanied by algal toxin and notes that testing for the blooms and the toxin have not occurred on some of the Finger Lakes' largest lakes, in part due to a lack of participation among citizen groups and also largely due to cost.
"I haven't heard of any samples being taken for toxins," Halfman is quoted. "It's cost-prohibitive for me to do the analysis."
The article also notes: "Halfman, of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, who does water-quality sampling in all of the five largest Finger Lakes, said they all have blue-green algae to some degree. Only Seneca and Cayuga have had blooms that he knows of, and he doubts they've contained toxin - but can't say for sure, because his lab can't analyze samples for toxin either."
Halfman joined the HWS faculty in 1994 after teaching earth science and civil engineering at the University of Notre Dame. He received his B.S. from the University of Miami magna cum laude, his M.S. from the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D. from Duke University. Halfman has been researching large lakes since the 1980s, the Finger Lakes since the early 1990s, and has done research on Lake Superior and the East African Rift Lake. His research on the Finger Lakes includes the collection of limnological and hydrogeochemical data to investigate records of environmental change, the hydrogeochemical impact of zebra mussels, the source and fate of non-point source pollutants within these watersheds and water quality variability between watersheds. In addition to being active in research, Halfman is also the founder, science coordinator and active member of the Finger Lakes Institute.
The full article from the Democrat and Chronicle follows.
Democrat and Chronicle
Watchdog follow-up: Largest Finger Lakes don't get toxin testing
Steve Orr • Staff Writer • September 23, 2013
Parts of the Seneca Lake shoreline were draped at times this summer with the oddly colored water and white froth that often signal the presence of blue-green algae blooms.
The blooms, which can be accompanied by potentially dangerous toxin, provoked a flood of complaints to the lake association.
But Seneca Lake's waters were never tested for algal toxin. Seneca, the largest of the 11 Finger Lakes, was never included on New York's warning list of water bodies suffering blooms because environmental officials tried twice but weren't able to verify that blooms had even occurred.
Members of the lake association were left confused. "We issued an alert to our members and ... asked them to report to the DEC. I haven't heard anything back from anybody," said Mary Ann Kowalski, president of the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association.
The situation at Seneca Lake this summer illustrates a surprising truth: Even as New York has stepped up efforts to look for the toxin and educate the public about the dangers of blue-green algae, the largest Finger Lakes have been left out.
State environmental and health officials analyzed more than 1,900 water samples from 160 New York water bodies from 2009 to 2012, with more sampling planned for this year. The analysis, largely funded by a federal grant, looked for blue-green algae toxins that affect the liver and nervous system.
But Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Skaneateles, the five largest Finger Lakes and among the most beloved bodies of water in New York, have benefited not at all from that monitoring.
Aside from one inconclusive test of Canandaigua Lake water in 2010, those five lakes were not checked once for algal toxin.
DEC officials ascribe that gap to the fact that the lake associations - groups of property owners and others focused on watershed protection - don't take part in a voluntary monitoring program whose members gather most of the samples that are tested for algal toxin. And while academic researchers do plenty of sampling in the big Finger Lakes, none of them are equipped to look for toxin.
"I haven't heard of any samples being taken for toxins," said John Halfman, chair of the environmental studies program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. "It's cost-prohibitive for me to do the analysis."
'A lot of complaints'
Reports of what appeared to be blue-green algae along Seneca Lake's shoreline first arose over the long Fourth of July weekend, which brought the sort of warm, sunny, placid weather that promotes blooms.
"We had a lot of complaints," Kowalski said. "This has been the worst summer, according to the people who have been around the lake and the beaches for a long time."
The DEC couldn't determine whether these were genuine blue-green blooms or not; on two occasions, the purported blooms dissipated before they could be confirmed, spokeswoman Lisa King said.
Historically, outbreaks of blue-green algae have not been as common in the large Finger Lakes as elsewhere in the state.
Like nearly every body of water in New York, the Finger Lakes all contain some amount of naturally occurring blue-green algae (which are not algae, per se, but an algae-like form of photosynthetic bacteria).
But experts say the organisms are most likely to bloom, or grow prolifically, in warm, calm, nutrient-rich water. Relatively shallow Honeoye and Owasco lakes fit this description and have had chronic problems with toxic algae.
But because the largest Finger Lakes have cooler water and better water quality than their smaller brethren, they've experienced far fewer algal blooms.
The question is whether that will continue to be the case.
Invasive quagga and zebra mussels have moved into the large Finger Lakes, increasing the prevalence of blue-green algae there by consuming other algae and creating a competitive advantange for the blue-green.
Scientists also say climate change is leading to more fierce spring storms that wash nutrients into lakes and more warm summer weather that promotes algal growth. Blooms seem to be more common and widespread in New York, say those who closely follow the phenomenon.
When the organisms grow rapidly , or bloom, they can change the water's color or form strange films on the water's surface. Some forms of blue-green algae can release toxins when they bloom, while others can't. There is no way to tell whether toxin is present except to analyze water samples.
Limited outbreaks are reported from time to time along the shorelines of Seneca, Cayuga and Canandaigua lakes. There were reports of small blooms on Caygua this summer.
"Blue-green algal blooms are nothing new. They exist, in the Finger Lakes, even in the bigger Finger Lakes. But I don't believe anybody has ever reported a toxic BGA bloom (there)," said Joseph Makarewicz, a professor of environmental science at The College at Brockport.
Then again, no one's looking for them.
A decade ago, Makarewicz participated in a cyanobacteria research project that looked for toxin in various lakes, ponds and bays. The larger Finger Lakes weren't included.
More recently, New York obtained a $750,000 federal grant to assess the frequency of toxic algae blooms in the state. That grant, which runs out this year, funded analysis of water samples from 160 New York lakes, ponds and bay.
In the first four years of testing, toxin was found in at least one sample in more than 140 of those bodies of water.
One benefit to toxin testing, officials and lake residents said last year, is that even a single positive sample gets the attention of lake users and places them on guard against blue-green algae.
On the flip side, knowing there's no risk is helpful too.
"The greatest value to lake associations is probably peace of mind. Most blooms are not blue-green algae and most blue-green algae are not toxic," said Gregory Boyer, chairman of the chemistry department at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, and a leading authority on the algae and their toxins.
Sampling results may serve as warning or reassurance, but residents the biggest Finger Lakes have received neither - because none of them participate any longer in the DEC's Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program, under whose auspices most of the toxin sampling was done.
Representatives of the five Finger Lakes' associations gave varying reasons for their lack of participation. Kowalski, who's been a leader of the Seneca Lake association for five years, said she had never heard of the DEC program.
Representatives of the lake associations at Skaneateles, Cayuga and Canandaigua all said they had few worries about blue-green algae at present.
"The official story is we don't have a problem. We have blue-green algae to the extent of any water body, but not to the extent it's going to harm anyone," said Steve Lewandowski, a consultant for the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association.
While the association has long done water-quality sampling on Canandaigua Lake, he said looking for toxic algae is beyond their scope. "We can't afford it," Lewandowski said. "We could get lots of samples if someone wanted to do the analysis for us."
Halfman, of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, who does water-quality sampling in all of the five largest Finger Lakes, said they all have blue-green algae to some degree. Only Seneca and Cayuga have had blooms that he knows of, and he doubts they've contained toxin - but can't say for sure, because his lab can't analyze samples for toxin either.
Boyer agreed that analyzing water samples for algal toxins is difficult and expensive. The equipment in his Syracuse lab cost about $300,000. To operate it properly would require an additional $20,000 annually and a trained staff, he said.
Boyer said his is the only academic lab in the northeastern United States, and one of a relative handful in the country, that can test for the full spectrum of algal toxins.
The lab handles the samples collected for the DEC, and will analyze a sample sent in directly by a lake association. "A number of lake associations take us up on that offer. Some even pay us for it," Boyer said. The charge is $135 a sample.
The association at Keuka Lake hasn't taken Boyer up on that offer. In fact,Keuka College biology professor Timothy Sellers, who works with the Keuka Lake Association on water-quality matters, said he's never seen anything approaching a bloom on the Y-shaped lake.
But he has noted a bit more of the blue-green algae in his microscopic studies of Keuka water, and he recently persuaded the lake association to help pay for a new piece of portable equipment that can measure how much blue-green algae is in the water.
Sellers said he warned association leaders that algal blooms could someday occur on the lake, and they need to prepare.
"We can spot these potential problem areas. If they (blue-greens) are there, we can target them and go back in and look at them," he said. "It could be coming, and it's good for us to be proactive."
The photo above features Professor John Halfman talking with students on Seneca Lake.