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What if you draw water from Skaneateles, Owasco or Cayuga Lakes?

Paul Norman wants to know what to do about drawing water from Skaneateles Lake, and he's not very encouraged by the state's answers so far. 

The 80-year-old former Auburn city clerk has owned property on the western shoreline since the 1960s, and has drawn water from a 220-foot intake for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and the like, ever since. But with the harmful algal blooms that cropped up last summer, he's looking for answers about whether that's safe, and if not, what to do about it. 

"This is a topic of conversation all over the lake," he said. "What are we going to do?"

The state Department of Health's answer? Don't drink untreated surface water, algal bloom or no.

The most common toxin found in harmful algal blooms in central New York is called microcystin. Contact with it and the blooms can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, skin, eye and throat irritation and breathing difficulties. Microcystin is a liver toxin, too, and animals and pets have died from ingesting it.

DOH, however, said there are plenty of other things to worry about besides microcystin, even in one of the cleanest lakes in the country. Considering HABs, however, it particularly stresses not to use water that is strongly colored, looks paint-life, or is scummy.

"For an individual to use surface water, you know, something like Skaneateles Lake where people have been doing it for many, many years, and may not have ever been sick, all it takes is the wrong beaver in the area, the wrong water fowl, and just a bad set of circumstances, and they can pick up a pathogen that could kill them," said Lloyd Wilson of the DOH's Division of Water. "So we do not support the idea. I think the HAB issue is just another reinforcement of why it's a bad idea for an individual to use surface water as a source of potable water."

But what do you do about hundreds of homes not hooked up to a public water supply?

The Cayuga County Health Department said based on its records from septic system inspections, approximately 700 county residents draw water directly from Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles Lakes. The Onondaga County Health Department did not have numbers on hand, but the Skaneateles Lake Association has said many of its members draw their water, too. 

Norman said he reached out to the city of Auburn's water treatment plant and learned more about the powdered activated charcoal system it installed last summer. That system kept harmful algal bloom microcystin toxins from getting into the drinking water of nearly half of Cayuga County's residents. That led Norman to install his own powdered carbon filtration system, and he's thinking about putting in a second one. 

He's been worried about the lake's water quality for a while now, he said, after witnessing deluges that carry not only sediment but rocks and boulders down steep bluffs and into the lake. This summer he watched a peninsula of silt and rubble jetty into Skaneateles, and then watched it wash away bit by bit.

Then came the blooms.

Despite his carbon system, Norman has been using bottled water to brush his teeth and drink at his summer home. He owns a condo in Marcellus and sometimes fills up containers of water there for his trips to the lake.

According to a DOH fact sheet about harmful algal blooms and surface water piping, in-home treatment systems still put people at risk. DOH encourages those that do use those systems to work with a certified water treatment professional. It recommends systems that use ozone, chlorine, carbon filtration and reverse osmosis, treatments that have been known to reduce harmful algae and its toxins. Boiling water does not work, DOH continues to stress, as this actually splits apart the cells that hold the toxin, and releases it into the water.

Wilson recommended that residents consider drilling their own well or hooking up to a public water supply. Norman said wells are expensive and some of his neighbors who have installed them complain the water smells like sulfur. The DOH fact sheet says "public water is always the best option for drinking, preparing food, cooking or making ice, as well as washing and bathing."

"Drinking water treatment is not an easy thing," Wilson said. "It takes some expertise. It takes sustainability. You can't just set up your filter and walk away, and expect it to be working six months later. You have to have somebody knowledgeable to maintain it. You have to be diligent about maintaining it. That's why we have relatively exhaustive regulations for public water systems."

For now, Norman, and others, are relying on bottled water. It's not an ideal solution, and he's frustrated with the fact sheets he's been given.

"I don't know whether what I'm doing is making it safe or not," he said. "I personally would think if there's no bloom around there's probably not a danger in the water, but some say it's always been there."

Tim Schneider, Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program 

A harmful algal bloom in Owasco Lake.

Farley aims to unseat Gillibrand

When Chele Farley was asked to consider running for U.S. Senate, she did what any prospective statewide candidate would do: She traveled across New York.

What she saw and what she learned along the way helped the private equity executive with engineering degrees from Stanford University make her decision.

Farley, a Republican, launched her campaign in February with the release of a five-minute video. More than a week ago, New York Republicans nominated her to challenge U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat who is seeking her second six-year term.

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is viewed as a safe incumbent. She has more than $9 million in her campaign war chest and won her last re-election bid by 46 points in 2012. She has been mentioned as a possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, although she insists her focus is on her Senate re-election campaign.

But Farley, who previously served as New York City finance chair for the state Republican Party, believes she can compete against Gillibrand. She plans to raise $10 million and has met with national Republican groups — the National Republican Senate Committee and the Republican National Committee — about the race. National GOP leaders have told her they will provide financial support.

One of the issues Farley has discussed early in her campaign is New York's status as a donor state. The state has long paid significantly more in taxes than it receives in federal aid. The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan highlighted the problem while he was in office.

Recent reports indicate New York sends at least $40 billion more to Washington than it receives in federal funding.

"That's appalling," Farley said in her first post-convention interview last week. "It hasn't improved and I think it's really important that we highlight that because our infrastructure is crumbling.

"I'm an engineer. I studied engineering. The papers are constantly full of the fact that bridges are falling apart, our tunnels, our roads. We have big problems with water infrastructure. The pipes are crumbling. There is the money. We just need to bring New York's money back to New York."

That's easier said than done. Moynihan, a Democrat, raised awareness about New York's donor state status for years without any significant action to close the gap. Other New York leaders have complained about it, but there hasn't been any movement to change how the state is treated when it comes to divvying up federal dollars.

Farley thinks she can change that.

"It's highlight the issue and being really noisy about it," she said. "I'm a negotiator for a living."

She believes her negotiating skills could be useful for other legislative issues. She criticized the GOP-backed tax measure that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in December. She acknowledged that while the legislation is good for "a lot of New Yorkers," it could have been better.

Farley singled out the changes to state and local tax deductions. Under the tax plan, you may deduct up to $10,000 of state and local income, property and sales taxes. That was a compromise after some Republican leaders proposed eliminating the ability to deduct state and local taxes.

"Why is it not $25,000 or $30,000?" Farley asked. "(U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio) was able to double the child tax credit to get his vote. Why in the world couldn't Kirsten Gillibrand have stood up saying, 'I won't allow this. Property taxes are high in New York state. Instead of it being $10,000, I'll vote for it if it's $25,000.' I can tell you if I had been there, that's what I would've done."

As expected, Farley offered a negative review of Gillibrand's time in office. Gillibrand was appointed U.S. senator in 2009 and won elections in 2010 and 2012 to keep her seat.

Farley doesn't believe Gillibrand has been focused on New York.

"She sat on her hands during all of this with the tax bill," she said. "I want to represent New York. I will represent New York. The only job I am interested in is being a U.S. senator. I'm not interested in appealing to left-leaning coalitions to potentially run for president. I want to sit there and help bring this money back, which will also very importantly bring back jobs."

Farley's platform is still being finalized. She is preparing white papers on a host of issues, including health care and taxes. She thinks the tax plan members of her party advocated for can be improved. And she's eyeing health care reform proposals that aren't a one-size-fits-all approach.

She will also advocate for balancing the federal budget.

"I understand what it's like to have to meet a payroll and only spend the money that you have," she said.

Before Farley faces Gillibrand, she may face a primary for the Republican line. David Webber, of Fulton, has said he will circulate petitions to force a GOP primary.

To appear on the primary ballot, Webber must collect 15,000 valid signatures over the next month.

But Farley's focus is on Gillibrand. After winning the GOP nomination, she plans to continue traveling across the state. She has some upstate trips planned over the next few weeks.

"The idea is to really have a conversation with all of the other New Yorkers to see what their needs are," Farley said. "I want to have a laundry list of projects that need funding and then go down to Washington and get as much funding as I possibly can for all of them." ​