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OWLA: How Owasco Lake volunteers monitor for harmful algal blooms
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OWLA: How Owasco Lake volunteers monitor for harmful algal blooms

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Another summer has come to a close for a busy group of environmentally conscious volunteers representing the Owasco Watershed Lake Association. Their responsibility for the past six summers is to search for harmful algae, or cyanobacteria, blooms in or on Owasco Lake and report them to the state Department of Conservation. This group comprises both lake and non-lake residents who were trained virtually this year due to the coronavirus. During the session the volunteers were taught how to identify possible HABS, how to take relevant pictures of the blooms, and how to report the suspected blooms on DEC forms.

The volunteers were asked to observe their assigned zone on Owasco Lake at least once a week, and many surveyed the lake daily. If they thought they observed a harmful bloom, it was electronically reported to the DEC. This year, volunteers reported 274 suspected blooms, of which the DEC, through their observation of the information, confirmed 66 of the reported blooms as toxic HABS. As you can see, it was an active year for blooms.

Our lake is divided into 26 zones or areas observed by the OWLA volunteers, stretching from Emerson Park to Cascade. The entire lake was under close surveillance for potentially harmful blooms from mid- July until Oct. 1.

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A map of the location of suspected HABS on Owasco Lake can be found on the NYHABS website. It shows suspected HABS that were positively identified by the DEC. The DEC and the Cayuga County Health Department advise us to "Know HABs, Avoid HABs and Report HABs."

Another question that has been raised recently is, “what is that foamy stuff” on our lake? Foam can usually be seen anywhere on the lake with larger accumulations along shorelines. A recent study conducted by the DEC on Canandaigua Lake indicates that the foam comes from decaying organic matter. Living things such as fish, plants and bacteria decompose after they die. Some of this material is fat based, and fat does not mix well with water, creating a foaming condition. The foam in a lake can tell us that there are a lot nutrients in the lake which encourage life to thrive. Foam can be harmless or in some instances may come from decomposing HABS. Too much foam can mean the lake’s ecology is out of balance.

Owasco Lake is the drinking water source for over 40,000 people in our area. The city of Auburn and the town of Owasco have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade their drinking water systems to protect us against these harmful algae blooms. Recreation on the lake has been affected by these harmful blooms. Perhaps due to the coronavirus, our lake was used very heavily this summer.

OWLA would like to thank the following team surveillance members for their hard work during the summer of 2020: Pat Adams, Carol Brundage, Jean Cannizzo, Ron Curvin, Steve Fland, Sharon Forshee, Mike Gilmore, Nancy Hart, Lisa Heaton, Don Kuhn, Julie Lockhart, Jan Losinger, Rick Nelson, Michelle Plis, Dan O’Neill, Ken Post, Dawn Rogers, Bill Stone, Tom Vasile, Susan Walser, MC White, Linda Vitale, Sam Vitale, Peter Rogers, Ann Robson and Jane Manning. We also thank numerous citizens in our watershed who reported observed HABS to the DEC to help with this important task.

Every one of us who live in this region should be a watchdog for our beautiful Owasco Lake. We need clean, pure and healthy water to survive and maintain a positive quality life. OWLA invites everyone to become an active member in the program and to participate in keeping our wonderful lake healthy and clean for now and future generations. Please visit our website at for additional information.

For more information, or to join OWLA, visit


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