Lake George, unlike the other eleven upstate New York lakes eligible for funding under a new $65 million program announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo last winter, has never experienced toxic algae, which can endanger critical sources of drinking water as well as local, tourist-driven economies.
But, as the home of the Jefferson Project, which is gathering data to help policymakers understand Harmful Algal Blooms wherever they might occur, Lake George may be the most important.
That’s especially true this month, the time of year when algal blooms are most likely to emerge.
On September 7, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation announced that toxic algal blooms have been reported in 81 lakes and ponds across the state. Conesus, Owasco and Seneca lakes in the Finger Lakes region are among the seventeen lakes added to the list in September.
The DEC said other lakes might have blooms that haven’t been reported or confirmed yet, a category that would appear to include another lake in that region, Skaneateles Lake.
According to the Skaneateles Lake Association, the blooms were found just south of the village of Skaneateles. Other suspicious blooms were seen on the lake’s west side.
The Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper reported that the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse has confirmed that the species of algae – actually a kind of bacteria called cyanobacteria – is one likely to produce toxins.
For the Jefferson Project, the timing of the outbreak was propitious.
Earlier this summer, researchers from IBM and RPI transferred some of the Project’s advanced technology to the western New York lake - the first time Lake George’s custombuilt sensors have been placed in another water body to perform similar monitoring functions.
“The Skaneateles Lake Association is thrilled that the Jefferson Project from Lake George has deployed a vertical profiler buoy on Skaneateles Lake to support and enhance the important monitoring already in progress as part of our effort to help protect Skaneateles Lake,” said Dr. Paul Torrisi, president of the Skaneateles Lake Association.
The information acquired through the pilot project will not only aid Skaneateles Lake and Lake George, but assist groups on water bodies throughout the state seeking to prevent or react to harmful algal blooms, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson Project stated.
Since early August, the robotic sensing platform has been collecting environmental data, including measurements of weather, circulation, and water quality and monitoring water for elements present in harmful algae.
Researchers are also in the process of analyzing data related to localized occurrences of Harmful Algal Blooms in August and September.
“We’re still looking through the data, but in looking for trends and specific things that might indicate a developing bloom, we’re seeing interesting things,” said Dr. Harry Kolar, the IBM engineer and a director of the Jefferson Project.
“But,” Kolar added, “we would need more data to state in a programmatic way that if you see the following trends, it is probable that a Harmful Algal Bloom is developing.”
“This is the holy grail; this is what everyone wants to know,” said Dr. Rick Relyea, an RPI professor and a director of the Jefferson Project. “How can you detect triggers before they grow into full blown, Harmful Algal Blooms?”
Dr. John Kelly, the Director of IBM Research, noted at The Fund for Lake George’s annual meeting on July 7 that the Jefferson Project’s mission was to both maintain a facility in Bolton Landing to study and protect Lake George “into perpetuity,” while, at the same time, “globalizing” the technology developed here.
Exporting the technology to Skaneateles Lake is a step in the direction of globalization, said Kelly.
“The deployment of Jefferson Project technologies and bringing our collective experience to Skaneateles Lake supports our original intent to expand beyond Lake George to other locations with water quality concerns,” said Kelly. “We are excited to work with local experts to apply our supercomputer technologies, data analytics, the Internet of Things platform and advanced environmental monitoring and modeling capabilities originally developed on Lake George to another lake.”
And yet even as the Jefferson Project’s technology aids groups on Skaneateles Lake and other fresh water bodies, Lake George reaps benefits, said Eric Siy, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George.
“The more we share our experience, our data, our technology, the more we help solve problems common to every lake, the more our influence grows, positioning us to shape policy on the state and federal levels and be of lasting benefit to everyone,” said Siy.