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Auburn YMCA: How a new septic system will benefit Camp Y-Owasco

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A first-of-its-kind project in upstate New York broke ground earlier this month with a clean water septic system that will stop toxins in wastewater from reaching Owasco Lake and our drinking water.

The Auburn YMCA-WEIU and Camp Y-Owasco have been creating friendships, enhancing skills, building character and creating memories for youth and teens on Owasco Lake for nearly 100 years. Camp Y-Owasco runs traditional day and residential summer camp programs for youth and teen leadership programs, which feature many waterfront activities such as swimming, canoeing, sailing and kayaking. Like many lakes across the state and country, Owasco Lake's waterfront, including Camp Y-Owasco, has shut down in recent years due to toxic blooms in the water that can make people and animals sick. Camp Y-Owasco relies on the lake as a centerpiece and cornerstone for camp programming every summer. When harmful algal blooms are present, all programming on the lake must be stopped immediately. Not being able to utilize the lake can negatively impact a camper's experience, especially if they are a first-time camper or if that is a camper's only week of camp for the summer.

In an effort to improve the health of Owasco Lake and reduce the rate of harmful algal blooms, the Auburn YMCA, the Nature Conservancy in New York, the Cayuga County Health Department and the Cayuga County Soil & Water Conservation District have teamed up to install a clean water septic system, the first in the Finger Lakes and one of the first in upstate New York, at Camp Y-Owasco on the east shore of the lake.

Harmful algal blooms are caused by several sources, including soil runoff and septic systems. Most septic systems are not designed to remove nutrient pollution from wastewater. It ends up in our lakes, rivers and drinking water. This new system will remove harmful contaminants from the camp's wastewater, preventing pollution from entering the lake and local drinking water. We want to do what we can — and inspire and educate others — to protect clean water and prevent further pollution of our lakes.

With support from the Emerson, Columbia and Metcalf foundations, the Nature Conservancy awarded the Auburn YMCA a $50,000 grant to help fund the project. We are pleased to work on this innovative project with the Nature Conservancy and the Cayuga County Health Department. The Cayuga County Health Department and the Nature Conservancy will monitor the rate of pollution reduction, which is expected to be 90% or more over the next two summers. We are excited to share the results of this new system.

"The Auburn YMCA-WEIU is extremely grateful to the Nature Conservancy for writing the grant to enable this clean water septic system to be installed at our Camp Y-Owasco. The collaboration between Cayuga County Soil & Water, Cayuga County Health Department, and the Nature Conservancy has been phenomenal. We all have the same goal: to protect our lake and do our part to maintain its health for the future," said Denise Tabone, interim CEO of the Auburn YMCA-WEIU.

Installation of the new system broke ground on June 2 and only took a few days to complete. The quick installation made it possible for the system to be operational before the start of Camp Y-Owasco's 2022 camp season. An educational and interpretative sign will accompany the new system, which will be incorporated into Camp Y-Owasco's nature curriculum. Watershed education has been a priority at Camp Y-Owasco in recent years. With the addition of this septic system, campers will further build their knowledge and understanding of the impact that they have on our lakes. Swimming and boating at camp spark the love and passion for our lakes, and education drives the desire to sustain and preserve that love, creating better environmental stewards.

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." — Baba Dioum

Melissa Cartner is the Camp Y-Owasco director for the Auburn YMCA-WEIU, 27 William St., Auburn. For more information, visit or call (315) 253-5304.


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