Climate change and our waterways

Most people assume the water they are drinking is safe and protected by government regulations. However, one community in Central New York is learning that even the most pristine of lakes can fall prey to the effects of climate change. This segment is part of Peril and Promise, our ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, climate change. Lead funding is provided by P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by The Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.


Most people assume the water they're drinking is safe and protected by government regulations.

However, one community in Central New York is learning that even the most pristine of lakes can fall prey to the effects of climate change and the human footprint.

This segment is part of an ongoing public-media reporting initiative called 'Peril & Promise,' telling the human stories and solutions of climate change.


Well, this is the first time that any of us that have been around the lake for a period of time have ever seen an algae bloom of this nature.

On September 13th, we got a call from a gentleman across the lake.

And he said that he thought he had an algae bloom, and could we check it?

And we located some strips of algae on the surface of the lake and we scooped up a little bit of that and we sent it into the lab at ESF for analysis.

And it wasn't much.

It was really quite modest.

And so we didn't worry too much about it on that day.

And that was a Wednesday.

On Friday, I got up in the morning, walked out onto the deck, and looked out at the lake.

And -- holy cow -- there was a big band of green algae all across the surface of the lake in front of the house.

And about two hours later, we got a call from the lab.

We will sometimes get 60 to 70 samples a day.

And so to actually process them through quick enough, we have to have instrumental technique that can do it on the order of seconds.

The ones we see that are interesting then go back under a very traditional microscope.

We've done 3,000 samples this summer.

Cyanobacteria, blue-green algae, are a very, very old lineage.

They first came around about 3 billion years ago.

Most blue-green algae, or most cyanobacteria, are not toxic.

However, the few that do are actually quite common.

So we see them in a lot of the different water bodies around here.

We saw the data where it had been really accumulated on the shoreline of the village.

And that was what we would say was an extreme toxicity.

Well, I can say we live on the lake and pull our water from the lake.

We get online, and, all of a sudden, the health department's telling us, 'It's dead-dog levels.

Don't let your dog go in.'

So that was terrifying.

Frankly, we'd been pretty smug over the years, because we've always prided ourselves living on one of the cleanest lakes in the world.

It's a double-'A'-rated lake.

The city of Syracuse and surrounding areas get their potable drinking water from this lake.

And we were told not to brush our teeth, not to cook our pasta with it, not to shower with it, even, because the microcystins vaporize in the steam in the shower, so take a quick shower.

So we were left shocked, basically.

When we talk about climate change, the models predict that we will get more rain in the spring, which should wash more nutrients into our lakes, followed by dry, relatively low-wind, warm, and sunny periods in the later parts of the summer.

Those are exactly the conditions that should lead to more blue-green-algae blooms.

The factor that seemed to kick this one off was the increase in nutrients, and that was caused, we think, by these torrential, torrential, heavy-rain events.

Our little ankle-deep creek turned into a thigh-deep river.

And we had literally tons of silt come into our beach and go south, and it changed the whole ecosystem of our little piece of the world.

And, all of a sudden, the nutrient mix was right, it was correct, and all the other stuff was there, and -- bingo -- the bloom came out.

And those heavy-rain events are a factor that's due to climate change.

Why do these blooms go away?

And they go away because the weather gets cold in the fall.

What we're seeing with climate change is -- our water is starting to stratify earlier in the spring and it's turning over later in the fall.

So, from the point of a blue-green algae, I have just increased the time I have to grow.

It was alarming to me to know that a citizen's organization found this, that the municipalities and the counties weren't checking for it.

Maybe we can be more thorough than what's required by the health department.

It's definitely not hopeless.

It will require some time to make the shifts that we need to make.

We need to stop thinking of the lake as an economic commodity, primarily, and we need to start thinking of it as an ecosystem.

What can we do to improve the health of our lake?