5 Key Takeaways from the Seneca Lake Water Quality Forum

On Wednesday, October 23, our team attended the Water Quality Forum at Hobart and William Smith Colleges to review research collected in 2019 and discuss water quality issues important to Seneca Lake. While harmful algae blooms (HAB’s) continue to be a serious issue facing the region, there are a number of state and local organizations collecting valuable data and funding projects to fight HAB’s in the Finger Lakes.

Each year, more is understood about blue green algae and what we can do to reduce bloom frequency and toxicity. Here are 5 takeaways from the forum and the research conducted during the 2019 HAB season: :

Suspected Blue Green Algae Bloom in Seneca Lake

85% of HAB’s sent out for testing this year came back positive for high toxin levels.

Over 100 samples from suspicious algae blooms were collected this year, and of those samples, 40 were budgeted to be sent out for toxin level measurement.  34 were positive for high toxins, driving home the point that if you see or suspect a bloom, stay out of the water.

HAB’s are most toxic at 20⁰ C, the water temperature we see most often in September. In 2018, the last algae bloom was reported toward the end of September, but this year, blooms have been confirmed late into October, a result of extra sunshine and warmer water temps. Generally, HAB’s are not an issue until late August on the majority of the lakes.

It cannot be determined if HAB’s are increasing year over year.

While the data presented since 2012 indicates that HAB’s are not only increasing in frequency, but also in toxicity, the DEC cannot conclude that this is the case. In 2018, there were 120 shoreline volunteers photographing blooms and collecting samples. Just 5 years earlier, a hotline was the only public initiative and no training was conducted to identify blue green algae. Aimee Clinkhammer, researcher with NYS DEC, concluded that the trend could be heavily influenced by the increase in education and conversation surrounding HAB’s.

There’s something in the soil on Seneca.

In an experiment performed by John Halfman, researcher for the Finger Lakes Institute, mud was collected in various locations along the Seneca Lake shoreline. Geneva tap water was added to the samples. They were left undisturbed and received daily sun, replicating favorable HAB conditions. Over time, every sample developed a blue green algae bloom.

John Halfman’s soil experiment presentation slide

It’s known that HAB’s need nitrogen and phosphorus to proliferate. These nutrients enter the lake in greater quantities after storms through stream runoff. Another nutrient source could be decaying macrophytes along the shore, like dried up seaweed and tree branches. To reduce the amount of shoreline debris settling in the water, Halfman urged attendees to perform routine beach clean up, especially after storms.

The uniqueness of each lake may impact how and when HAB’s form.

While the forum focused on Seneca Lake, the other Finger Lakes were not ignored. In comparing trends found on Seneca to the other 10 lakes, there were few parallels. Some lakes had higher levels of phosphorus with some bloom activity, like Seneca. Other lakes had very low levels of phosphorus and high bloom activity, like Skaneateles Lake. This indicates that different Finger Lakes may be able to handle different nutrient levels and, therefore, be impacted by HAB’s in unique ways.

New York is a leader in the national effort to address HAB’s.

HAB’s are not exclusive to the Finger Lakes, and are an even greater issue downstate and across the country. We are not alone, but we are the model. Clinkhammer commented that other state agencies have looked to the NYS DEC for guidance in forming their own HAB’s initiatives and programs.

While more research is needed to fully understand and address HAB’s in our region, the Water Quality Forum provided insight into the fight and hope for the future of our lakes.

A huge thank you to the Seneca Pure Waters Association for holding this important and well attended event! We look forward strengthening our partnership and keeping our homeowners and guests informed.

For more information about harmful algae blooms, please visit the NYHABS website.

Takeaways from the 2019 FLRWA Symposium

Our team attended the 2019 Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance (FLRWA) Symposium on Thursday, August 15th at Ventosa Vineyards where challenges and opportunities for the Finger Lakes were discussed. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn how we can be a better resource for our homeowners and guests, and a better partner in the efforts to keep our lakes safe and clean.

There were two topics that dominated the discussion between the organizations, businesses, and state representatives present at the Symposium. They also happen to be the two greatest threats to the quality and future of the Finger Lakes.


The good news is that the water quality of our lakes is good and has remained consistent over the last 10 years. The bad news is that despite this there is an increasing presence of harmful algae blooms (HAB’s) along our shorelines. HAB’s are largely the result of external nutrients entering the water through storm run-off, shoreline development, and agricultural practices. The presence of dreissenid mussels (i.e. zebra mussels) also increases the presence of blooms. They prefer to feed on native cyanobacteria and algae, instead of the harmful and invasive types.

There is now a 50% chance that a bloom will appear when temperatures are high and the water is calm. In some cases, these blooms can contain high levels of toxins.

There is no way to prevent or predict when a HAB will form, but organizations, like the DEC and the Finger Lakes Institute are making progress. Monitoring buoys have been deployed to document water conditions and provide real time feedback when a bloom appears. The Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program (CSLAP) is a volunteer lake monitoring and education program that has been in place for over 25 years and has been vital in collecting data on HAB’s. The DEC has also created a website where you can see HAB’s reported within the last 2 weeks. It also displays archived blooms from the entire year. See it here.

For more information on identifying HAB’s and steps to take after exposure, visit the DEC website. The Department of Health recommends waiting 48 hours to swim after an algae bloom dissipates.

You can make a difference in reducing the likelihood that a bloom will occur. The following practices can avoid harmful materials getting into the lake through run-off:

  • Clean up pet waste
  • Limit lawn fertilization
  • Maintain septic tanks
  • Reduce erosion by installing and maintaining shoreline buffers

Invasive Plant Species

Our lakes have seen an increase in invasive species disrupting the watershed ecosystems. While invasive fish, insects, and mussels are all threats, the focus of the discussion was on invasive plant species. The priority invasives of concern for all of the Finger Lakes are Hydrilla, Water Chestnut, and Water Lettuce.

Finger Lakes PRISM is working diligently and having success in containing the spread non-native flora. Their goal is eradicate and contain harmful plant species early and while it’s still cost effective. Allowing these plants to flourish could be detrimental to our lakes and local municipalities that source their drinking water from them. Here are some simple actions you can take to support their efforts and prevent the spread of invasive plants to your lake:

  • Report and send photos of suspicious plants to FLXplantID@gmail.com
  • Purchase and plant native plant species only
  • Routinely inspect, drain, and clean watercraft, especially when moving between bodies of water
  • Don’t put anything in the lake that you wouldn’t put in a glass of water (garbage, lawn clippings, raked leaves, etc.)
Display at the 2019 Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance Symposium

Our mission moving forward is to stay up-to-date on these threats and gain the resources necessary to keep our employees, homeowners, and guests safe and informed. With the increased presence of HAB’s, it will be crucial to educate on when it is safe to swim, the symptoms of exposure, and how to identify and report these blooms. Above all, we are committed to doing our part to ensure the Finger Lakes remain safe and enjoyable for all.

For more information, visit the Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance website.