BEWARE THE BLUE-GREEN monsters from the deep. Except, they’re not monster-sized monsters but they can make you sick and can be real trouble for pets and livestock. Are they coming to get us?
You might have believed that they are if you followed how a routine advisory from the state Department of Environmental Conservation was misreported in some local media last week. Reports said state or the county had closed Kinderhook Lake to swimmers. The reason given was the alleged presence of a harmful algal bloom of cyanobacteria. Cyan is a blue-green color; the bacteria part you get, which brings us back to the monsters attacking Kinderhook Lake. Or, as it turned out, not so much.
The DEC monitors lakes all over the state for pollution and for the presence of harmful algal blooms (HABs). Four of those lakes are in Columbia County. In the scientific literature a bloom is described as “rapid, uncontrolled growth of algae.” Sounds icky and, based on photos of the massive bloom that choked Lake Erie last year, it can be. They may be microscopic, but when those cyanobacteria start to bloom there’s no telling where they’ll stop.
Nothing like that happened at Kinderhook Lake. In late June DEC employees witnessed two small blooms in one part of the lake and confirmed that it was cyanobacteria. On June 29 the DEC issued a health advisory alerting people to take precautions and avoid contact with any apparent algal blooms.
The DEC informed the county Department of Public Health of its findings and Jack Mabb, director of the health department, sent a copy to Kinderhook town Supervisor Pat Grattan and the Kinderhook Lake Corporation, which manages the lake and the dam that keeps the lake full in warm weather. Nobody issued a Do Not Swim order.
Maybe it shouldn’t be necessary to tell people not to dive into icky green water and to keep their pets away from it too. But it’s hard these days to divert us from the screens of our mobile devices to avoid oncoming cars let alone the algae blooming where we plan to swim. And at some point folks were likely reading garbled reports on social media that swimming had been banned in the lake.
So the hot story about bacteria causing a swim-ban-that-wasn’t made it into print and onto one of the network TV affiliates in Albany. By the time we went to print nearly a week after the health advisory was issued, we had a short, factual story.
There was no malice in the spread of misinformation about the algae bloom, but the public was misled. That should make the DEC pay attention to what happened here. The agency has an easily accessible part of its website that addresses harmful algae blooms and lists where HABs notices have been issued and, as is now the case for Kinderhook Lake, discontinued. It’s not enough.
The DEC has media contact lists and it would make sense for the agency to post a brief press release with every health advisory it issues, explaining the advisory’s scope and limits and at least target it to the media market nearest the bloom. If it sounds like busywork, the DEC should keep in mind that with all the sources that were available, some reporters got it wrong. Nobody got hurt this time; the next time might be different.
There will be a next time. The Kinderhook Lake Corporation’s spring newsletter discussed algal blooms months before the ones reported there, saying that cases of human illness from HAB exposure are increasing. The corporation’s website singles out hot weather as one of the factors that can lead to HABs, specifically the recent heat wave that has relented for now.
Such prolonged hot weather is not a fluke. It is characteristic of climate change. We can expect weather patterns to move more slowly or not at all. Assuming prolonged periods of high heat are part of the new normal, we’ll have to find new ways to co-exist with algae.
The other major cause of HABs is pollution from runoff and sewage from homes, businesses and farms: the mess we humans hope will go somewhere we can’t see or smell it. The appearance of algae triggers health advisories but algae is a symptom as much as a cause.
Algae is no monster. It’s just a lot older than our species and it might well outlast us too. It reminds us for all our illusions about conquering nature we’ve picked a fight we can’t win.