University at Buffalo researchers, in a new study to be released this week, warned about the harmful effects of algae in the Great Lakes.
The Zuppa family of Cheektowaga found out the hard way Tuesday when they went to Woodlawn Beach, only to find that, for the second time in a week, they couldn’t go swimming.
The study suggests there could be longer swimming bans in the weeks and months ahead. That’s because the algae protects illness-causing bacteria like E. coli.
“Sunlight has a certain disinfectant property” against bacteria, said Berat Haznedaroglu, the UB assistant professor who conducted the study. “The algae being on top of the surface somehow creates a protective habitat from the sunlight, so their survival in the water gets extended.”
It even offers the bacteria a source of food, the study showed.
That’s frustrating news for the Zuppas and other local beach-goers seeking respite at Lake Erie shores this summer.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do – sit here and sweat, and look at the water?” said Dan Zuppa, who paid $7 to park at Woodlawn for a few minutes before deciding to repack the car and, with three sons in tow, head for Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island.
A few dozen beachcombers weathered the closing at Woodlawn on Tuesday. Most of them sunbathed. Children, like 5-year-old Joseph O’Connor, climbed playground equipment or combed through the sand with plastic toys.
“If it’s a sewage problem, you’d think by now they’d have it figured out,” said South Buffalo resident Mary O’Connor, Joseph’s grandmother. “I’d rather be in the water.”
Beach closings – especially at Woodlawn, which is adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant – are hardly a new phenomenon. The UB study could better explain why beaches are often closed for days or weeks at a time, often during stretches of nice weather.
The amount of algae Tuesday at Woodlawn compounded the problems at the beach.
“It’s like a ‘safe harbor’ for bacteria,” Haznedaroglu said. “It’s sort of like an umbrella, so to speak.”
This is unrelated to the widely reported algal blooms – the toxic microsystis associated with blue-green algae – that annually affect the western and central basins of Lake Erie every summer. Those cyanobacteria – which are nerve, liver and skin toxins – are spawned by different algal blooms.
The UB study focused on the widely present nuisance green algae called cladophora, that usually attach on rocks at the lake bottom, but detaches when it matures and washes ashore.
The algae isn’t toxic, but the bacteria it harbors can make you sick.
Haznedaroglu said the findings of the UB scientists were based on laboratory results from algae samples collected in August 2011 from beaches at Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island.
The study, published in a British environmental journal by the Royal Society of Chemistry, found that milliliter samples of nearly 1,000 E. coli bacteria survived for nearly six hours under ultraviolet radiation, such as sunlight. That time period ballooned to 16 hours when algae was introduced.
In milliliter samples of 100,000 E. coli, the bacteria survived for two days when subjected to ultraviolet radiation. When algae was present, the E. coli lived for 11 days.
Similar findings occurred with salmonella bacteria, the study showed.
The study indicated the algae did not seem to promote bacterial proliferation, but only helped extend its life.
In some cases, especially in smaller shoreline areas, it’s a problem that’s treatable.
The bacteria attach to the filaments of the cladophora. So, if the green algae is skimmed from the beach water, the bacteria concentrations could be reduced, while also allowing for further penetration in the water by the UV radiation from sunlight.
But removing algae from lakes does more harm than good because the algae produce oxygen for other life in the water and are a vital part of the food chain, the scientists say.
Striking a balance is important.
That’s why scientists favor reducing how much phosphorous and other nutrients enter the lake by way of agricultural runoff, landscaping, sewage overflows and urban runoff.
The nutrients are a problem for Lake Erie – a shallow lake in proximity of large cities with a heavily agricultural watershed.