Cayuga Lake Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Program
A collaborative program that brings together NGO’s, agencies, and community members with the shared mission of collecting actionable data on cyanobacteria blooms, protecting public health, and relaying bloom information and testing results as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Have you observed a bloom like the ones shown below?
Despite the name “Harmful Algal Blooms” or “Blue-Green Algae”, these cyanobacteria blooms are not really algae. They are bacteria, a more ancient type of organism. Among the first life forms on earth, cyanobacteria emerged some 3.5 billion years ago, at a time when the earth’s atmosphere contained virtually no oxygen. As the first photosynthetic organisms and the ancestors of modern plants, cyanobacteria produced oxygen as a waste product that accumulated in the atmosphere. Over the course of some 2.5 billion years, cyanobacteria made it possible for life forms that depend on oxygen, including eventually humans, to evolve. Cyanobacteria are a diverse group of organisms with a range of morphologies and adaptations. Some genera can fix nitrogen, others have gas vacuoles that enable them to move up and down in the water column to seek out favorable conditions. Many species of cyanobacteria produce chemical compounds whose purposes are not fully understood. A few of these natural compounds, cyanotoxins, are toxic to humans and other animals. Their presence is what makes a cyanobacteria bloom harmful.
Under the right conditions, freshwater cyanobacteria experience explosive growth, dividing rapidly and increasing their population until they become a visible bloom. Three common groups of bloom-forming cyanobacteria are Microcystis, Dolichospermum, and Aphanizomenon. While these groups have distinctive features that can be recognized under a microscope, the blooms they form are indistinguishable to the naked eye. Additionally, there is no visual indicator of toxins that may be present in a bloom. Cyanobacteria blooms may look like parallel streaks or green clumps on the water, or they may have a spilled paint or pea soup appearance (see below).
Who’s involved – Leadership and Volunteers
Who's Involved - Leadership and Volunteers
The Cayuga Lake HABs monitoring program is led by a group of three environmental non-profits backed with some programmatic assistance from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. This Cayuga Lake Water Quality Consortium includes the Community Science Institute, Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, and Discover Cayuga Lake.
Community Science Institute
CSI is an Ithaca based environmental non-profit that operates a certified water testing lab, works with volunteers to monitor water quality in streams and lakes, and disseminates water quality data on CSI’s online database with the mission of fostering environmental stewardship.
CSI tests cyanobacteria bloom samples at the CSI lab in Ithaca, recruits and trains volunteers, and manages program logistics including the dissemination of test results via the Cayuga Lake HABs Results Page. CSI also reports the Cayuga Lake HABs data to the DEC NYHABs statewide reporting page.
CLWN maintains communications and networking between project partners and the watershed public, including public agencies, concerned residents, and municipalities.
Discover Cayuga Lake
Discover Cayuga Lake (DCL) provides experiential learning opportunities that promote academic achievement, environmental literacy, and lifelong relationships with the waterways that define our communities.
During their daily voyages, DCL keeps a close eye on Cayuga Lake, monitors changes in the lake’s phytoplankton community, and educates passengers of all ages on cyanobacteria blooms and what’s being done to address them.
The Community Behind the HABs Monitoring Program – HABs Harriers and Quadrant Leaders
The Cayuga Lake HABs Monitoring Program would not be possible without the support and engagement of the Cayuga Lake community. In 2019, over 80 volunteers are participating in the Cayuga Lake HABs Monitoring Program, monitoring over 45% of the Cayuga Lake shoreline.
We strive to increase community participation and monitoring coverage as the program continues to grow.
Become a HABs Harrier!
How It Works
After attending a volunteer training workshop, led by CSI and the New York State DEC, prospective HABs Harriers are asked to decide on a section of Cayuga Lake shoreline they feel comfortable monitoring on a weekly basis. These sections of shoreline, or zones, are then mapped and assigned unique codes for bloom tracking and reporting purposes.
Starting in July, HABs Harriers survey their assigned zone once every week until the end of September – reporting if they observe a suspicious bloom on the shoreline or not, and if so, collecting a sample of the suspicious bloom. Additionally, four Quadrant Leaders, covering the northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest sections of Cayuga Lake, provide support, back-up, and encouragement to the Harriers in their quadrant. Harriers, or Quadrant Leaders if need be, transport suspicious bloom samples to CSI’s lab in Ithaca where they are analyzed for parameters that help assess bloom composition, density, and toxicity. The results of CSI lab analysis of bloom samples are then reported on the HABs Reporting Page. These results are also sent to the DEC to be reported on the NYHABs statewide reporting page.
The HABs Hotline – overseen by the program coordinators of the Cayuga Lake Water Quality Consortium and the Quadrant Leaders – makes it possible for members of the general public to report suspicious algal blooms and play an active role in the community based effort that supports effective HABs management.
The CSI lab is equipped to perform three analyses on suspicious blooms: microscopy, total chlorophyll a, and microcystin. If initial inspection under the microscope confirms the presence of cyanobacteria, then chlorophyll a and microcystin analyses are performed.
All samples received by the CSI lab are first assessed by microscopy, carefully looking at samples under the microscope, to characterize general bloom composition and determine if cyanobacteria are present in the bloom.
Total Chlorophyll a
If cyanobacteria are present, total chlorophyll a is used to estimate the biomass of the cyanobacteria bloom. Total Chlorophyll a is determined using spectrophotometry and results are reported in units of parts per billion (ppb) or micrograms/liter (ug/L).
Cyanobacteria produce a variety of natural chemicals, a few of which are harmful to other species, including humans. The most common harmful chemical found in New York is microcystin. Detailed toxicity studies have not been performed, and there is not yet a consensus on acceptable exposure levels. The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) has set safe limits for public drinking water supplies at 0.3 ug/L and for public swimming beaches at 4.0 ug/L (EPA, 2017). The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) defines a “bloom with high toxin” as 20 ug/L near the shore and 10 ug/L in open water (NYSDEC HABs Program Guide, Section 3).
Microcystin toxin is measured using EPA Method 546 which is an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). CSI reports results down to the drinking water standard of 0.3 ppb (EPA, 2015).