Recreation, health officials on alert as algae season hits Chautauqua beaches

By Zachary Lloyd and Mike Kasarda | Staff Writers

Greg Funka | Daily file photo
The Children’s Beach Rain Garden serves to beautify the lakefront area near Chautauqua’s most popular beaches and to filter run-off before it reaches Chautauqua Lake.

Last week, an all-star cast of speakers and performers, including Ken Burns, Krista Tippett, Jackie Evancho and the Capitol Steps, drew record numbers at Chautauqua Institution. Clear skies and brilliant sunshine only added to the charm.

Despite the beautiful weather and stimulating programming, Week Seven fell short in one essential area: the beaches.

“Last week the theme was very popular, and a lot of people were on the grounds,” said Melissa Long, beach director at the Institution. “We had our first string of hot, sunny days, but no one could swim. The beaches are a huge draw, so that was really disappointing for a lot of people.”

Though the lake may have looked like an inviting reprieve from the heat last week, officials advised Chautauquans to stay out of the water due to the proliferation of toxic algae near the beach shorelines. Those looking for a refreshing dip were restricted as each of the Institution’s four beaches experienced frequent closings.

Cyanobacteria, often referred to as blue-green or toxic algae, develop in the slow moving waters of lakes and streams that accumulate high levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.

Chautauqua Lake meets this designation.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the algae group together into dense colonies, called blooms, during the hot, calm days between May and October, where they pose a threat to recreation seekers and their pets.

During a speech on toxic algae to the Jamestown Rotary Club in June, Chautauqua Institution Director of Operations Doug Conroe outlined the potential risks associated with the blooms that are now present in Chautauqua Lake.

Provided photo
Algae floating on the water surface last week.

“Many of these algae commonly have a bacteria component that can produce cyanotoxins that include hepatoxins, neurotoxins and dermatoxins,” he said. “You can get a rash, or you can get an interior infection like an upset stomach.”

Simply put, the algae affects people in different ways, said Andy Freay, director of recreation at Chautauqua.

“Obviously, you don’t want to ingest the water, and if you come in contact with it, you want to wash yourself with clean water immediately afterward,” he said.

The Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services knows that algal bloom conditions can change at a moment’s notice depending on a variety of conditions like sunlight, wind and rain. According to Bill Boria, a water resource specialist for the DHHS, algal growth thrives during days with lots of sun, little wind and quiet waters. While the county health department does routinely collect samples and test the levels of toxin around the lake, Boria said they also rely heavily on the vigilance of beach operators to detect the presence of toxic algae in their waters.

Long said that this is the first year in her memory that the beaches have been closed for an entire week at a time. In order to ensure the safety of swimmers, the beaches staff tests the water every morning and regularly throughout the day, typically every half hour.

“We’re looking for little fuzzy balls of green algae,” Long said. “We haven’t seen anything severe this summer to create the blue algae, but we’re always vigilant. We need to make sure the water is safe near shore and even out past our lines.”

The toxic water is not only an issue for human beachgoers. Pets are also prone to sickness and even death from ingesting the noxious water. The algae sticks to their fur and enters their digestive system when they lick themselves clean, charging them with a lethal dose of toxin.

In addition to toxins, bacteria can also present a danger for swimmers, Long said.

“Unlike the blue-green algae, bacteria is invisible to the naked eye,” she said. “The Chautauqua County Health Department tests for bacteria every summer. We’ve had problems with both this year.”

Aside from closings due to high winds and waves, the University, Pier, Children’s and Heinz beaches have seen minimal algae this week. Signs are posted at the beaches when closings are due to occur and include more details about the dangers of algal blooms.

“It’s a day-by-day thing, and it can even change hourly,” Boria said. “But we just got back our results from tests at Mayville, Bemus, Lakewood and one beach at the Institution, and we tested clean for toxins at all four sites. The blooms seem to be breaking up, and some have turned from green to brown which might indicate that they’re dying.”

The health department updates its website with water quality reports throughout the area. Freay said the Institution also is committed to communicating closures to the community.

The presence of blue-green algae on Chautauqua Lake may lead to beach closings through the remainder of the season. All people and pets should avoid the water when beaches are closed. Notices will be posted at affected beaches, and beachgoers are encouraged to call the head lifeguard office at 716-357-6350 for current conditions at any beach. Daily hours for Children’s and Pier beach are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through Aug. 24, any day beaches are closed, swimmers with a valid gate pass will be granted free access to the Turner Community Center pool after checking in at the fitness center reception desk.  Hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. weekdays, 7 to 11 a.m. and 12 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 7 to 11 a.m. Sundays. Call 716-357-6430 for more information.