SKANEATELES — A crowd of a couple of hundred people filled the Skaneateles High School auditorium Wednesday night to learn more about a 3 billion-year-old enemy that has surfaced in their lake — harmful algal blooms.

This summer microcystin toxins from the blooms, were detected in the water intake, potentially threatening the drinking water for thousands served by the city of Syracuse's department of water. Drinking water test results continue to show no toxins, but with some residents drawing directly from the lake and many wondering when they can swim or fish or take out the kayak, the blooms this summer have created panic. 

"We have just had a serious wake up call on Skaneateles Lake," said Robert Werner, who was one of the first co-directors of the Great Lakes Research Consortium and has served on boards including the Upstate Freshwater Institute and the Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance.

Werner said climate change has warmed oceans, causing more serious storm events. The deluge on July 1 that many in central New York experienced, increased phosphorous levels (a nutrient needed to create harmful algae) in the lake from about 5 micrograms per liter to 14. Below 10, Werner added, is considered clean.

Gregory Boyer, a professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the director of the New York's Great Lakes Research Consortium, gave audience members a picture of what they were up against. Boyer has studied harmful algal blooms for about four decades, from ones on Owasco and Skaneateles lakes, to ones in China that looked thicker than porridge. 

The main factors the harmful algae need to survive, Boyer and Werner said, are nutrients, light, and warm, calm waters. Nutrients, they added, are the one thing residents may be able to do something about. A panel with Executive Director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust Andy Zepp, Skaneateles Town Council Members Claire Howard and Constance Brace, Executive Director of the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District Mark Burger and owner of E-Z Acres dairy farm in Homer Mike McMahon discussed things that are already being done to limit nutrients, and things that are in the works. 

"This has been an awful, awful shock to all of us," Howard said. "It's been a heart breaker. We have an incredible tie to our lake. It's our identity. Tonight is only a beginning."

Howard said the town is looking at upgrading its zoning and development rules. The town has also started to monitor Shotwell Brook in the watershed to see what nutrients its carrying. Burger and McMahon discussed some farming best management practices that help keep runoff from entering streams and the lake. 

One piece of good news for those around the lake, Boyer said, is the only toxin found in Skaneateles Lake is microcystin. Boyer analyzes bloom samples at SUNY ESF and he told The Citizen prior to the meeting that the bad news is Owasco Lake is still seeing detectable levels of anatoxin in its blooms.

Microcystin is a liver toxin and anatoxin is a neurotoxin. While anatoxin levels had gone down since the weekend of Sept. 24 when the lab had first detected the unusually high levels, Boyer said the levels are going back up. The lab has not found any trace of other toxins associated with harmful algal blooms, however.  

In the meantime, the Cayuga County Health Department reported the highest level of microcystin this season in the raw lake water entering the city of Auburn's plant from a sample collected Oct. 2 at 0.45 micrograms per liter. The town of Owasco also had a small detection at 0.18 micrograms per liter. Neither the town nor the city had toxins in the drinking water.

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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