New York state and local officials are co-sponsoring a forum Thursday evening on harmful algae blooms in the Walkill River. The event is aimed at heightening public awareness about a growing problem that spans the river in two counties.
From August through October this year, the Wallkill River turned bright green, as if someone poured paint on the surface. That’s because of a confirmed harmful algae bloom. While it shifted in extent, the bloom affected the river for 60 days, according to environmental group Riverkeeper, with persistent or recurrent impacts documented along a 30-mile stretch of the Wallkill and a portion of the Rondout Creek. It affected 10 municipalities and many public access points in Orange and Ulster counties. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper, which is a co-sponsor of the forum at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
“So algae’s a natural part of an river or any lake. It’s the base of an ecosystem but it’s not natural to have happen what we saw in the Walkill this summer and fall, which is up to 30 miles of the river for two months really affected by this harmful algal bloom which is, has produced toxins that can kill dogs, it can threaten drinking water supplies, it can do, it’s a serious issue and it’s a widespread issue we’re seeing around the state and the country but no river in New York state has been affected the way the Walkill River has been affected.”
He says toxins produced by this algae have been documented on several occasions at levels many times above thresholds for safe recreation. A state Department of Health spokeswoman says the department investigated the Wallkill River algal bloom when it was first reported and found that there are no public water systems in the area of the bloom that are using the river as a water source. DOH continues to work with local health departments in Orange and Ulster counties to monitor the public water systems for any changes that occur that would require remediation and notification to the public. Jason West is director of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance and will speak at the forum.
“The large part of the economy in this area is ecotourism so when you have literally a poisoned river running through these beautiful landscapes, it hurts the economy, it hurts businesses who rent kayaks, it hurts recreation, people’s enjoyment of the river, just getting out on a Saturday and paddling around,” West says. “And it’s something that is possibly avoidable, and there are things we can do to lessen the chances of these algae blooms happening.”
The former New Paltz mayor says three factors contribute to harmful algal blooms. One is slow or stagnant water, which over the summer was caused by a drought. And rivers usually flow, which is why algal blooms are unusual for rivers. A second factor is temperature and a third is nutrients seeping into the river from sources like farm fertilizer or leaking septic tanks. West says something can be done with regard to nutrients.
“And, for most people, you hear nutrients and you think that’s a good thing, vitamins and nutrients are good for you but, what we’re talking about is nitrogen and phosphorous overloading these ecosystems and really causing some damage,” West says.
Dr. Rebecca Gorney is program coordinator of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Harmful Algal Blooms Program.
“Water bodies that do have blooms do tend to have them again and again, so it is possible that we could see this again next year in the Wallkill and other rivers in New York,” says Gorney.
Gorney, who also will speak at the forum, says the harmful algal blooms reported in rivers in the state over the summer are somewhat new and of concern. Plus, she says, there were blooms in more than 170 water bodies in 2016, more than 70 of which were new incidences. There have been blooms in 288 water bodies since DEC began such tracking in 2012.
“On Friday, we’ll be posting on our website a five-year summary of blooms in water bodies throughout the state,” Gorney says.
DEC’s website has a photo gallery of harmful blooms and other information. Riverkeeper’s Shapley says an aim of the forum is prevention.
“We don’t want to see this happen again. We saw harmful algal bloom last year around the same time but it lasted only a couple of days. This one lasted two months. What’s next year and the next year and the next year?” Shapley says. “So we want to reduce the conditions, reduce the inputs of these excess nutrients, which are the pollutant in this case, so that we don’t have harmful algal blooms in the future.”
"Harmful algal blooms usually form a bright green appearance. They can either be a scum on the surface of the water or bright green chunks, like pea-size as you mentioned, floating in the water or, when they’re very dense, they can be completely mixed into the water where the water looks almost like pea soup or even like spilled paint, a bright green spilled paint,” Gorney says. “And they also can appear slightly different colors as well, sometimes that bright green, sometimes more of a blue-green whitish or brownish. They have a wide range of appearances.”
The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz also is a co-sponsor of the forum entitled, “Why Did the River Turn Green? Harmful Algal Blooms in the Wallkill River.” The forum runs from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday in the Humanities Building at SUNY New Paltz.