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Protecting New York lakes from harmful algal blooms

Tony Eallonardo, PhD,

Over the last decade, harmful algal blooms have been increasing in prevalence across New York State and continue to threaten drinking water quality and recreational activities nationwide. In New York, more than 150 water bodies experienced HABs in 2017, resulting in more than 100 beach closures.

The Threat

A harmful algal bloom, often called a HAB, is any large increase in the density of blue green algae that is capable of producing toxins. These toxins can cause adverse impacts to human health (and pets), aquatic ecosystems, and the economy (by affecting industries and sectors that depend on clean water). Adverse health effects stem from drinking water affected by HABs and from contact; hence, swimming or other recreational activities should be avoided in waters suspected to have a HAB.

While HABs often occur in nutrient-rich, relatively warm waters, they have also been observed in lakes with low nutrient concentrations and during most months of the year (not only the peak summer months). There is some evidence that invasive species, such as zebra mussels, create conditions favorable to the occurrence of HABs; however, research is needed to better understand the underlying linkages between invasive species and HABs and how these linkages vary in different lakes. There also is some evidence that northwesterly oriented lakes, and lakes with longer maximum fetch, are more susceptible to HABs; but like the role of invasive species, this phenomenon warrants additional evaluation.

Action Plans

In addition to the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a $65 million initiative to protect New York’s water bodies—and the communities who rely on them for drinking water and recreation—from the impacts of HABs. Twelve priority water bodies were strategically chosen based on a wide range of conditions and the intent to apply lessons learned across the state.

As part of this initiative, OBG worked with New York State’s (NYS) Water Quality Rapid Response Team, led by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Health (DOH), to create tailored action plans for the 12 priority lakes. The plans are available at the NYS DEC’s HAB webpage. 

The objectives of these plans were to identify factors triggering HABs on each lake and provide corresponding, stakeholder-driven recommendations to limit the frequency and extent of HABs. Innovative data analysis and remote sensing applications were used to develop insights into the underlying drivers of HABs in the priority lakes and others in New York.

Priority actions identified in the plans range from wastewater treatment upgrades, sewer expansions, and septic system upgrades and replacements, to streambank erosion prevention, stormwater best management practices, agricultural nutrient reduction measures, and open space preservation projects. Additionally, the action plans recommend research and monitoring programs, as well as administrative and coordination initiatives.

Along with the plans, the state will provide $60 million in grant funding to help implement the action plan recommendations.

Due to the complexity and dynamic nature of HABs in freshwater ecosystems, developing the action plans required a multi-disciplinary approach from OBG—wastewater treatment system expertise, knowledge of watershed management techniques (e.g., agricultural and natural area best management practices to reduce nutrient and sediment loading), advanced statistical approaches, data management, and technical writing.

Tony Eallonardo, PhD is a plant ecologist and expert in the restoration and remediation of natural and anthropogenic ecosystems. He has managed a wide range of projects, from ecological restoration in postindustrial environments to large river systems. Tony leads OBG's natural resources and restoration efforts for the Onondaga Lake Superfund cleanup program in Syracuse, NY—one of the largest and most complex programs in the nation. As part of this project, he directed the ecological restoration design and implementation of the Onondaga Lake Western Shoreline project, which received a diamond award from ACEC New York, and became an advisory board member of the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps. Over his career, Tony has received the SUNY-ESF Maurice Alexander Wetland Research Award, EPA STAR Fellowship, and OBG’s Corporate Social Responsibility Award.

Meet additional members of OBG’s team:

Andrew Brainard, PhD specializes in limnology and aquatic ecology and is responsible for executing a wide variety of tasks, including environmental reviews, scientific studies, technical writing, and environmental assessments. He also has provided technical input on ecological restoration designs and implementation. Andrew’s current assignments include technical support of a NEPA Environmental Assessment in Tennessee to evaluate alternatives and impacts to water quality and species diversity from proposed changes to upstream reservoir releases. In addition, he supports vegetation mapping and community assessments in the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern.

Mark Greene, PhD is an expert in biological wastewater treatment, particularly in the areas of municipal and industrial wastewater treatment, anaerobic digestion for biosolids and high-strength industrial wastewater, and environmental process research and development. He is actively involved in the Water Research Foundation and the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA). Mark was recently recognized for his long-time service to NYWEA and inducted into the association's Hall of Fame at its 90th annual meeting.

Mike Rondinelli is a scientist with extensive environmental consulting experience in ecological and human health risk assessment, sediment and water quality issues, environmental permitting/licensing, and project management. He has extensive experience developing site-specific strategies, including identification of risk-based alternatives for reducing remediation costs. His broad range of experience includes leading numerous technical investigations involving sediment contamination, water quality, fisheries and benthos, and wetlands.

Kyle Buelow, CPESC, CPSWQ, ENV SP is an ecologist specializing in natural resource assessments, environmental permitting, wetland and stream design and construction, and stormwater management. His work is integral to the successful completion of federal, municipal, commercial, and industrial projects, while maintaining and enhancing the ecology of sites and their surrounding areas.

Heather Weitzner, EIT is a coastal engineer with experience in several coastal and ocean engineering research areas, including wave analysis, shoreline protection, numerical modeling, erosion studies, and corrosion analysis. Through her work and collegiate career, Heather has conducted hydrodynamic and erosion modeling and gained knowledge of coastline dynamics and morphology.

Chris Nack is an ecologist focused on habitat restoration and fisheries management. He has published 12 peer-reviewed publications related to aquatic ecology and habitat restoration, and has received the Virginia Sea Grant Coastal Storms Fellowship, Dense Research Award, Hudson River Estuary Mark B. Bain Fellowship, and the Hudson River National Estuary Research Reserve Fellowship. Chris serves on the Gay’s Point Side Channel Restoration Advisory Committee and the New York Chapter of the American Fisheries Society Annual Meeting Committee. At OBG, he supports hydrodynamic and sediment flux assessment of ecological restoration scenarios on the Hudson River and the New York State Harmful Algal Bloom Action Plan initiative.