CONCORD — Cyanobacteria, an organism that can be highly toxic to plant and animal life, is plaguing lakes, ponds and rivers throughout Lakes Region, and environmental advocates are asking residents to call or write to support HB 1066, which would create a study commission to address the problem.
The State Legislature’s Resources, Recreational and Development Committee will hold a public hearing Wednesday, Jan. 12 at 1:45 p.m. in Room 305 of the Legislative office Building in Concord. It’s unclear whether there will be a remote option. Concerned residents are asked to email the committee at HouseResourcesRecreationandDevelopment@leg.state.nh.us or send letters to NH House of Representatives, Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, Legislative Office Building, Rm 305, Concord, NH 03301.
With a potentially increasing presence of the bacteria that can threaten humans, pets, plants and wildlife and wreak havoc with tourism and property values, environmental experts say it’s critical to support the bill at this time. Cyanobacteria typically creates a brightly colored film (ranging from bright green to yellow-orange, purple or bright blue, depending on the cyanobacteria type and other algae present) or it can linger below, forming clouds in the water or turning it a muddy brown color, according to state biologists and researchers.
"I'm surprised that there isn't greater awareness. Cyanobacteria is becoming more prevalent," including in rivers, said NH State Rep. Rosemarie Rung (D-Merrimack), who sponsored the bill. "It's being associated withe some very scary disease, including ALS" or Lou Gherig's disease. The correlation is being studied by medical researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. "We need a commission to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with this." The problem is too large, she said, for small lakes and ponds without watershed associations to address independently.
Blooms have increased in frequency and severity in recent years, said Bob Cracraft, program director of the UNH Lakes Lay Monitoring Program. Water quality is also at risk. “People come up here because of the pristine nature of most of our water,” said Cracraft. Throughout the state and the greater Lakes Region, “Cyanobacteria issues have become more pronounced of late in terms of frequency and intensity,” raising associated risks that include skin rashes, eye and ear irritations, gastroenteritis and central nervous system damage.
“Algal and cyanobacteria blooms are on the rise statewide, including in Lake Winnipesaukee,” said Pat Tarpey, executive director of the Lake Winnipesaukee Association, a conservation group dedicated to protecting New Hampshire’s biggest lake. In recent years, freshwater bodies throughout the area have reported cyanobacteria blooms, including in the last two years, and some outbreaks are lasting longer, from the summer until as late as November, said Amanda McQuaid, a cyanobacteria and water quality expert UNH Cooperative Extension in Durham.
Last year, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which collects reports from witnesses, issued 33 advisories at 27 water bodies throughout the state, McQuaid said.
Lake Kanasatka on the Center Harbor-Moultonborough line has had major outbreaks in the last two years, said McQuaid. Other lakes such as Mirror Lake in Tuftonboro, and shorefront areas of Winnipesaukee have experienced occasional outbreaks in the last 10 years. Lake Winnisquam has addressed a roving cyanobacteria problem with water quality protection efforts. There are no reports of cyanobacteria at Newfound Lake on record, McQuaid said. But Ayer’s Pond in Barrington, Tucker Pond in Salisbury and Eastman Pond in Grantham experienced cyanobacteria blooms for the first time this year. NH DES operates a cyanobacteria hotline, at 603-848-8095 or firstname.lastname@example.org for people to submit photos to the state.
The increased sightings could be related to increased awareness and reporting, said McQuaid. “From the public’s perception, it’s increasing. Some people who live on lakes are saying ‘We’ve never seen this before, but now we are.” Wild swings in temperature can also contribute to cyanobacteria overgrowth, said McQuaid. Extreme weather seems to increase the occurrence and length of the blooms, she said.
McQuaid hopes the bill will pass to jumpstart the process of cataloging, understanding and mitigating the problem. “Cyanobacteria a lot of times can produce toxins. What we lack in understanding is when, how often and which toxins they produce.” There’s an association between water quality and recurrent blooms, she said.
Local lake associations and water quality advocates are championing the bill, which would create a statewide study committee. Tarpey at Lake Winnipesaukee Association said its water quality studies have shown that phosphorus (a naturally occurring mineral that is found in high concentrations in lawn fertilizer and road salt) are leaching into lakes through erosion and stormwater runoff, and also from failed septic systems. Water samples have measured phosphorous concentrations in six of Winnipesaukee’s 10 bays at 100 to 400% higher than pre-development levels. Land use changes and impacts of human activities have led to 54,000 pounds of phosphorous loading in Lake Winnipesaukee each year – a 300% increase from pre-development or natural levels.
“The potential impact on water quality is significant,” Tarpey wrote in a statement to the House Resources, Recreational and Development Committee. “One pound of phosphorous can support 500 pounds of algal, cyanobacteria and plant growth.”
It’s important for the state to act now, Tarpey said. Because of excessive phosphorous loading into Lake Champlain from agriculture and development, which has serious cyanobacteria blooms, the state of Vermont is under federal pressure to mitigate the problem, which is estimated to cost $970 million, or $50 million for each of the next 20 years. One of the funding mechanisms suggested is a per parcel assessment on residents, Tarpey said.
The Squam Lakes Association based in Holderness also expressed vehement support for HB 1066, which would establish a commission to investigate and analyze the environmental, human and animal health impacts related to cyanobacteria blooms in New Hampshire’s water bodies.
“As you can imagine, the SLA is excited about seeing this commission form. Cyanobacteria has reared its head sporadically in the watershed, can be difficult to deal with, and has serious health implications for people and animals. It is also a widespread issue that will be better dealt with by all of us working together,” the association said in an emailed statement.