A $900,000 federal grant will help fund fight against harmful algae, invasive species and other dangers

GENEVA — Starry Stonewort is the name given to a nasty plant that’s invaded the Finger Lakes. This fast-growing, algae-like menace is really bad in some areas, including sections of Canandaigua Lake.

Creating thick mats of vegetation, the plant obstructs boating, fishing, swimming and destroys spawning sites for native fish.

“This macroalgae is infesting the Woodville area, and other southern areas of the lake are hugely infested,” said Hilary Mosher, speaking Thursday at Finger Lakes Institute in Geneva.

Mosher and others with the institute hosted a visit by U.S. Rep. Tom Reed. The Corning Republican was in town to highlight an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant of $900,000 awarded to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The funds will help in the fight against invasive species, harmful blue-green algae and other threats to the Finger Lakes and connecting waterways.

The Great Lakes and Finger Lakes provide more than 30 million people with drinking water and help support a multibillion-dollar economy.

Mosher, coordinator of a partnership called Finger Lakes PRISM (Finger Lakes Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management), reviewed the threats and what the institute and partners are doing through research, education and outreach. Efforts range from measures to control the invasive giant hogweed plant to educating boaters about preventing the spread of invasive species in the lakes.

Reed asked about the connection between invasive species and the rise in harmful blue-green algae, which Mosher said is due in part to human activity around the lakes. Mosher said that while blue-green algae is not an invasive specie, it can become more prevalent and thrive with the growth of invasives.

In 2012, just one of the 11 Finger Lakes, Owasco, was found to contain harmful, high-toxin blue-green algae, according to the institute. In 2017, six of the lakes had harmful blue-green algae containing high toxin levels: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco and, for the first time, Skaneateles.

Mosher said funding is always a concern and multiple sources — such as local governments, state and federal grants and nonprofits — pay for necessary research, field work and programs. In summer 2017, for example, Finger Lakes Institute employed 40 students from colleges and universities across the region in field and research projects with a payroll of $200,000.

Reed was asked about cutbacks to the EPA. Reed said fears are overblown. The congressman said the current approach is taking budgets for EPA-funded projects back to zero, to weed out programs and projects that aren’t working. He said programs like Finger Lakes PRISM don’t have to worry because they are showing results.

The visit included a tour of the science lab at the Finger Lakes Institute that overlooks Seneca Lake at 601 S. Main St. Technician Evan Helming showed Reed vials of lake water for testing mercury and bottles of water filled with aging blue-green algae, and opened a refrigerator filled with fish for testing mercury content.

The $900,000 grant breaks down to $299,474 for The Starry Stonewort Collaborative for the Great Lakes Region: HWS will convene a workgroup of resource managers and stakeholders to minimize the impacts of the aquatic invasive plant species commonly known as starry stonewort. “The Starry Stonewort Collaborative will develop prevention strategies, refine best management practices to control the species, and enhance surveillance and control activities,” according to a release.

For Hydrilla control in the Finger Lakes Region, HWS will receive $598,960 to help control the aquatic invasive plant species Hydrilla verticillata in a 30-acre area of Cayuga Lake. Like the starry stonewort, Hydrilla is also fast-growing and obstructs boating, fishing and swimming, and destroys fish habitats. Shoreline property values can be diminished in areas where this invasive has taken over. This project will include training opportunities for approximately 1,100 community members.