Slime on the Agenda

Town board concerned about toxic algae

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The Philipstown Town Board earlier this month discussed whether to enact regulations to control faulty septic systems and ban fertilizers and other chemicals blamed for feeding toxic algae slicks on lakes and ponds.

The board discussed the issue at its July 12 meeting two days after a Putnam County legislative committee endorsed a program to help pay for home septic system repairs and the state Department of Environmental Conservation updated its list of lakes with hazardous or suspicious algae growth, including five in Putnam. A second list of lakes and ponds under watch includes Barrett Pond and the Beacon Reservoir in Philipstown and 10 other Putnam sites.

The DEC says most algae pose no health risks. But it cautions that some types, called Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), contain toxins. Contact with HABs can cause vomiting, allergic reactions and breathing difficulties in humans and be fatal to dogs. Known as scums, streaks and blooms, HABs are white, red, yellow, blue, green or brown and often resemble spilled paint, pea soup and “floating dots or clumps,” according to the DEC.

They thrive in warmer waters (making them another byproduct of global warming) and feed on phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers and other lawn-care products spread through unchecked stormwater run-off and septic system failures.

Harmful Algal Blooms, which contain toxins and should be avoided, can look in the water like (clockwise from top left) surface streaks, spilled paint, floating dots or clumps, or pea soup. (DEC)

Councilor Nancy Montgomery, who lives at Lake Valhalla, said she’s been “astounded” by the number of homes in her neighborhood with flags warning that their lawns were treated with chemicals.

“The lawns look beautiful, but I’m a little concerned,” she said. “It’s not natural for a lawn to grow like that in the woods.” She added that she “can’t find worms anymore to fish with because there is a change in the soil” and that she sees changes in the lake, as well.

In a later interview, Montgomery, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Barbara Scuccimarra for Putnam’s District 1 County Legislature seat, explained that Lake Valhalla does not have an algae problem, but that tests have suggested a high phosphorous level. “I am alarmed” about possible future problems, she said.

“How many lakes are gone because of this?” she asked at the July 12 meeting, proposing that Philipstown act. She said that other municipalities prohibit application of chemicals near lakes and that perhaps “we can ban this,” too. She also urged that the town “have a better watch over” septic systems.

Councilor Mike Leonard observed that other towns in Putnam County have attacked algae, but that apparently “it’s almost impossible to fight it at the lake level. You have to fight it at the source” by restricting pollutants. He pointed out that practices acceptable at lakeside cottages that were once uninhabited much of the year no longer work when the cottages become full-time residences.

Scuccimarra, who chairs the county Legislature’s health and environment committee, made the same point on July 10, citing Lake Carmel and Putnam Lake as examples. (The DEC reports that the suspicious algal growths in two lakes have not yet proven by testing to be HABs.)

The three-member health committee voted to send a resolution to the full Legislature endorsing Putnam’s participation in a state program to prevent lake pollution. Established in 2017, it allocates $75 million to deal with cesspools and septic systems that pose risks to drinking water or lakes and streams.

Under the program, counties can receive state funds to reimburse homeowners up to 50 percent of the cost of replacing a cesspool or malfunctioning septic.

2 thoughts on “Slime on the Agenda

  1. The Lake Valhalla Civic Association shares Councilor Montgomery’s concerns about the future of our lake and the watershed as a whole.

    For many years, at our expense, our homeowners have contracted with the nation’s leading biologist-led lake management company to conduct bimonthly assessments of our lake’s water quality, including chemical composition, invasive plant growth, and algae populations each season. In recent years there has been an uptick in the phosphorus content of the lake — although still within acceptable levels — that the biologists tell us is often the result of fertilizer use uphill from the lake. We’ve cautioned our homeowners about fertilizer use (organic is no better!) but welcome the idea that regulatory approaches should be considered. Thanks to our neighbor Nancy for raising this important issue.

  2. I must say that I find it shocking that our local politicians, including Legislative candidates Nancy Montgomery and Barbara Scuccimarra, appear to be so uninformed about our local lake problems. How is it that two people who actually got elected to local offices do not know even the most basic facts about cultural eutrophication and lake biology (Limnology) while claiming to have any environmental credibility whatsoever?

    I live in the Lake Oscawana area of District 1, the legislative seat that is up for grabs in November, and have been active in lake conservation, preservation and remediation for many years, along with many other residents who have been fighting the good fight to keep our beautiful lakes clean and usable.

    Any candidate for office should know that there is so much incredible information out there, so many studies that have been done and acted upon, and so much money available in funding from Government sources, that it would be dereliction of duty (in the case of Ms. Scuccimarra) not to avail oneself of these resources.

    Lake management is a science and there are many experts who have studied our lakes over the years (see the above post from Mr. Kaye for example) who have worked with us to overcome the problems that have occurred as population density in the watershed increases along with septic problems and phosphorous loading. In fact, one of the things that caused us to form the Lake Oscawana Improvement District, was the terrible outbreaks of blue green algae that were occurring back in the 1980s. Residents voted to tax themselves in order to preserve the lake and we continue to do so with great results.

    I strongly urge both Ms. Scuccimarra and Ms. Montgomery to educate themselves about the magnificent lakes in our District that add so much value to our communities so that whichever one of them gets elected can use their office to help the taxpayers pay for the preservation and remediation that must be done- now and in the future.

    It has been my greatest complaint about County government that we keep paying and paying but get little to nothing in return, especially the merchants and business owners. It’s about time that we elect someone who will be pro-active on this important issue.