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What do we really know about what causes harmful algal blooms?

Regina Willis and Lewis McCaffery record data from Seneca Lake to measure indicators of harmful algal blooms
Veronica Volk
Regina Willis and Lewis McCaffery record data from Seneca Lake to measure indicators of harmful algal blooms

Lewis McCaffery stands on a dock looking out over Seneca Lake.

"Sometimes while you’re doing this job, you do think, 'Wow, I am the luckiest guy to be paid to go out on the lake.' Even though there are some problems on the lake, it’s still wonderful to be out there."

The problems McCaffery is referring to are what he is here to test for.

"Today we are going to be collecting water samples for a whole variety of different parameters," he says. "We’re going to be looking at nutrients, we’ll also assess the acidity of the lake, how much oxygen is in there, how much chlorophyll is in there …"

All that to say, McCaffery is looking for any sign of harmful algal blooms.

"You want me to put it into layman’s terms? I don’t really know any layman’s terms. That’s a joke! OK …"

McCaffery is a senior research scientist with the Finger Lakes Water Hub, which is part of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative to study these blooms -- sometimes called HABs -- because they can be dangerous.

"They can do some damage to the economy of the lake," McCaffery said. "They can also be harmful if you swim in them."

McCaffery is also working with a volunteer, Addison Mason, or Addy. He’s owned property on the lake for decades and now lives full time in a house on its east end.

"I was in the Navy, so I like water -- it just feels better being on the water," Mason says. "And we’ve got a lot of eagles and osprey that have come back, so my morning coffee’s been on the porch watching the eagles."

Those eagles could be threatened if these HABs get worse. That’s because the blooms put off toxins that poison fish, which can in turn poison birds of prey.

Mason is just one of hundreds of volunteers across the Finger Lakes who collect water samples and take measurements for the DEC for this program.

After Mason and McCaffery load the boat with equipment, we take off for the middle of the lake.

McCaffery explains that one reason this research is so important is because there’s so much we don’t know about HABs. For instance, Seneca Lake has not had any blooms recorded this season. Cayuga Lake is currently monitoring 40.

"They’re right next to each other," McCaffery  says. "Similar depth, same volume, length, width, obviously the same climate, and even the nutrient in the two lakes are kind of similar, so on a day like today, why are they different?"

Much of the collection process is tedious. Recording depths, temperatures, visibility, oxygen levels. Taking water samples from 5 meters, 10 meters, 15 meters, which will go back to a lab for analysis.

"Along with ropes and cable management, ice and temperature management is part of this job," McCaffery says.

But all this collecting is also going to fuel another part of McCaffery’s research. He and a team of researchers are looking at ways that satellites can monitor blooms.

"Yesterday, a satellite went over the Finger Lakes and we can correlate the color of the lake with the amount of chlorophyll," he said. "And so what we want to try and do is monitor the whole Finger Lakes and even the whole of New York state."

McCaffery says at some point, that may help them better predict blooms, which are becoming an increasing problem. Warming lake temperatures and the high levels of nutrients in the water are thought to be the main culprits, but not the only contributing factors.

But prediction is still a few years out. In the meantime, McCaffery says we already know some ways to help prevent things from getting worse, mainly by reducing phosphorus and nitrogen from running off into the lake from farms and sewer systems on the shoreline.

Veronica Volk is a senior editor and producer for WXXI News.