AUBURN — Chad Johnson has a lot of taps to choose from, but they're not pouring beer. 

Amid the loud hum and grumbles of the city of Auburn's upper pumping station, the 24-year-old engineer in training with GHD Consulting spends parts of his days collecting Owasco Lake water samples. It's an effort he's done with both the city and the town of Owasco to test different harmful algal bloom toxin treatment options.

The city and town hired GHD Consulting to help with its current toxin treatment system last year. The environmental engineering firm has an office based out of Buffalo, but Johnson's office has been the pump houses this past summer and early fall. Johnson, who grew up in Marcellus and attended the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said it's good to be back in the Finger Lakes region.

"It's kind of nice to be able to have a part in all of this," he said. "My grandpa lived on Skaneateles Lake, so we grew up there on the boat and everything. And now, when I come here for the week, I stay with my dad. He lives on Otisco Lake, so I'm mostly all over all the lakes."

At the Auburn plant on a cold September day, Johnson got to work, bottling up water from 24 spigots across four nearly floor-to-ceiling columns. He also walked past the blue, thick and serpentine tubes where the water flows, and from a small tap in the side of the wall took a sample of the raw lake water.

Back at the columns, he worked his way through the spigots. One column replicates the city's water filtration system stacking anthracite and sand. Johnson collected samples at different stages of the filtration, so if there are toxins in the lake water, test results might show where the toxins are best filtered out.

Pump house 3

Water column toxin testing equipment at the upper pumping station at Emerson Park.

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Another column is all sand, replicating the city's slow sand filter. The last two columns are what the city is perhaps most interested in, mimicking a granular activated carbon filtration similar to what the town of Owasco is using to keep harmful algal toxins at bay. Johnson said there are two kinds of granular carbon GHD is testing.

After he collects and bottles the samples, Johnson said he ships them to a laboratory in Ohio. There, they are analyzed for various harmful algal bloom toxins, including the most common in Owasco Lake, microcystin. A liver toxin, microcystin showed up in the finished drinking water of customers who get their water from the lake last summer. Since installing a powdered activated carbon treatment system, the drinking water this summer has remained free of toxins

Besides microcystin, GHD is having the lab test for anatoxin, cylindrospermopsin and saxitoxin. These toxins can come from cyanobacteria, the official scientific term for harmful algal blooms, or blue-green algae. The Cayuga County Health Department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation reported levels of anatoxin in some of the blooms sampled on Owasco Lake this year. The toxin has not been found in the drinking water, however, and Johnson said the carbon treatment systems were partially chosen because they do a good job of filtering out all cyanotoxins. 

Johnson said GHD will compile the results from the lab into a report back to the city. John West, Auburn's chief water plant operator, said those results may help the city decide whether it will keep the current powdered activated carbon system, which it is utilizing on a lease-to-own deal, or if it will try a new method for next year.

In the meantime, cooler weather means Johnson is wrapping up work at both plants. West said the latest toxin results from the Cayuga County Health Department have shown no detectable toxins, even in the raw lake water.

"It looks like we're getting on that side of it, but we'll have to see for sure," he said. 

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