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AURORA — The village of Aurora held a public meeting Saturday to discuss solutions to the threat of harmful algal blooms in Cayuga Lake.

Stephen Waldvogel, of GHD Consulting Services Inc., was present to discuss results of a feasibility study that is being done at the Wells College water plant to see what is needed to retrofit the plant to handle algal toxins in the water. Eileen O'Connor, of the Cayuga County Department of Health, was also present to discuss the situation. Wells College operates the plant that treats water distributed to Aurora residents.

“I understand this is quite a challenging issue for a community like Aurora and the college,” Waldvogel said. “My focus is on the short term, immediate needs to protect the village from harmful algal blooms.”

Microcystin, a type of cyanotoxin, is one of the main toxins that the village is working to prevent from entering its finished drinking water. Microcystin targets the liver specifically and can cause acute and chronic health problems. So far, there have been no detections of the toxin in Aurora's finished drinking water, “but there is a vulnerability here,” Waldvogel said.

The cyanotoxins can cause skin, eye, and throat irritation, as well as allergic reactions and breathing difficulties, O'Connor said.

“We never really worried about Cayuga Lake, until this past year,” O'Connor said. “You had harmful algal blooms in Cayuga lake, and we don’t know what the future is going to bring. The village and Wells college should be prepared for the potential that harmful algal blooms could get into the drinking water."

“We don’t know if any toxins were coming into the treatment plant (last summer when harmful algal blooms were detected in the lake), but we can say that no toxins were in the drinking water when we sampled,” O'Connor said, adding that the health department will be monitoring the water this coming year and is prepared to issue a do not drink order if needed.

It is due to these threats that the village has plans to supplement its current water filtration system, especially because “you can't boil the toxins away,” Waldvogel said.

“Current water treatment systems don't completely or effectively remove all of the toxins,” Waldvogel said, explaining that “when (the toxin) is released from the cell, it dissolves in the water and passes through conventional water treatment.”

Currently the Wells water plant has two diatomaceous earth filters, installed in the 1960s, which are “very porous structures that capture particulate matter,” Waldvogel explained. While effective at removing suspended solids, particulate matter and bacteria, these filters will allow algal toxins to pass through.

While the village is also looking into a longer term solution involving an alternate water supply for the village, that won't be ready for a few years, Waldvogel said. For the short-term, he advised that an activated carbon filter system be added to the water system.

Activated carbon has been found and validated “to be very effective at absorbing small organic contaminants such as mycrocystin and other cyanotoxins,” Waldvogel said.

“One teaspoon full of this black granular substance has the same or more surface area than an entire football field, because it’s so porous. The contaminants are drawn into the pores. … It traps the contaminants and it doesn’t release them.”

Waldvogel explained that a multi-barrier approach is most effective when combating the toxins, so the activated carbon filtration process would begin after the water has already passed through the DE filters, and before the water is treated with chlorine.

Preliminary estimates for the project are $500,000 to $750,000, and Waldvogel explained that GHD will need a joint decision from the community and health department by the end of March to be able to have it done by the target date of Aug. 1.

“It’s almost an identical time frame we had in Auburn and Owasco last year,” Waldvogel said, “so I know we can do it.”

In addition to discussing the short-term issue of protecting the village from harmful algal blooms next summer, the meeting also presented a discussion on the need for a new water supply or treatment plant as Wells is looking to get out of the water business.

“Something long overdue in Cayuga County is a close look at all municipalities' sewer and water systems,” said Doug Selby of the Cayuga County Water and Sewer Authority. “We call it an infrastructure master plan.” 

Selby explained that at least half of the county counts on water supply from Owasco Lake that's passed through Auburn's water treatment plant.

“We’re looking at another opportunity to have a different source of supply that is not Owasco Lake and interestingly enough, as we looked at the Aurora system, Cayuga Lake looks like a prime opportunity for that second source,” Selby explained.

One concept that has been suggested in order to satisfy both a need for a second source of water, and to help the village out, is to construct a new intake in Cayuga Lake that is 100 feet deep instead of the current 20 feet-deep intake and then build a new treatment plant. The plant's first phase would satisfy the needs of the village, but in the future perhaps become a second source of water in case Auburn's system were to ever fail or need a back-up.

The estimate for a new water treatment system is $11.5 million.

Another option involving pipelining eight miles into the Auburn system would cost an estimated $7 million alone.

“The systems you have were done a long tome ago, paid for a long time ago, and they’ve really served you well — long beyond their normal useful life,” Selby said. “We’re continuing to cooperate with the village and the health department.”

Aurora Mayor Bonnie Apgar Bennett said “cooperation between the village, the Inns of Aurora, and Wells has been terrific” throughout the entire process.

She stressed the negative impact on tourism that would likely occur if toxins were to be found in the village's drinking water, saying, “the scare for both the tourism industry and for parents sending their 18 year-olds to Aurora is going to be huge.

“So the reason that this meeting is happening is because we have to solve this problem now,” Bennett said. “What’s going to solve this problem is money, and engineering, and that’s going to hit all of us.”

Bennett said officials are doing all they can to ask for help and resources.

“We will meet again, I’m sure, to make sure you understand what’s going to happen with the algal bloom issue,” Bennett said.

Staff Writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at 315-282-2244 or or on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.


Towns Reporter