Record numbers of toxic blue-green algae blooms have been detected in 96 Upstate New York water bodies, including Chautauqua Lake and others in the local region.
Sen. Chuck Schumer addressed the issue in a conference call, describing the algae - and the poisonous cyanotoxins they produce - as a "looming problem," with the potential of harming summer tourism, the local economy, and most importantly, public health.
"Lakes are some of Upstate New York's greatest resources for tourism, recreation and healthy drinking water," Schumer said. "But toxic algae blooms threaten to greatly undercut the value of this resource, and what's more, have the potential to contaminate drinking water and make people sick."
According to a recent report by the National Wildlife Foundation, New York leads a nationwide list for reports of toxic blue-green algae.
The Southern Tier alone has 16 lakes with reported algae blooms, including Chautauqua, Findley, Red House, Lime and Beaver lakes as well as the Beaver Lake Inlet and the Allegheny Reservoir.
According to Schumer, a major factor for this is climate change and how warmer, rainier springs have given blue-green algae a more favorable environment to flourish.
The increased amount of phosphorus in lakes due to runoff from agricultural areas and aging sewer systems has also played a role.
"As human activity near lakes and rivers increases, there are more chemicals that creep into our waterways ... and that is what feeds these toxic algae," Schumer said.
To counter this problem, Schumer has announced a two-pronged plan that will call on the Environmental Protection Agency to take a more "front and center" position.
"First, I am urging the EPA to issue guidance and recommendations to local water treatment plants on how best to test for and treat these cyanotoxins," Schumer said. "Second, I am pushing the EPA to develop clear 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."
In addition to this, Schumer said he will continue to press for increased federal funding for upgraded sewer systems, and see through the implementation of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP. This program provides $1 billion in financial assistance to farmers each year for conservation efforts that limit erosion and runoff from their farms.
These efforts notwithstanding, residents are still encouraged to be mindful of blue-green algae, their appearance and potential health risks.
According to the New York State Department of Health, blue-green algae can be present in water that is visibly discolored or that has surface scums. Colors can include shades of green, blue-green, yellow, brown or red. Water can even develop a paint-like appearance.
Drinking water with high levels of blue-green algae toxins could pose health risks to the liver and the nervous system.
Direct contact or breathing airborne droplets containing high levels of the toxins during swimming or showering can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat, even inflammation of the respiratory tract.
Recreational or short-term exposure, however, is not expected to cause major harm.