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After 14 years, DEC begins draft of phosphorous Total Maximum Daily Load on Cayuga Lake

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Sunrise on the Cayuga Lake

A Total Maximum Daily Load on phosphorous is being established for Cayuga Lake.

SENNETT — The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has started drafting a Total Maximum Daily Load on phosphorous covering all of Cayuga Lake, ending a nearly four-year, approximately $3 million study funded by Cornell University.

Jacqueline Lendrum, a research scientist with the DEC, said Cornell handed over its research to the DEC at the end of December 2016. The DEC will use those models and information to form the first draft of the Total Maximum Daily Load, which Lendrum described as a "pollution diet" — covering the different sources of phosphorous pollution, how much those sources contribute and what levels are considered healthy for Cayuga Lake. She said the proposed deadline for the draft plan is May 1, after which it will be available for public comment.

Eileen O'Connor, director of the county's Environmental Health Division, delivered the news that a Total Maximum Daily Load was in the draft process, to members of the Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency meeting on Thursday morning, and many, including O'Connor, were surprised.

"For the longest time they had been focusing on just the lower third of the lake, so now it's going to the entire lake, which impacts Cayuga County more," O'Connor said. "So, more information to come in terms of how we, as a county, can be participating in that process." 

Bruce Natale, environmental engineer for the county, and Doug Kierst, executive director of the county's Soil and Water Conservation District, seemed baffled by the DEC's decision to essentially triple the scope of the Total Maximum Daily Load after taking years to focus on a small portion of the lake. 

DEC officials said they chose to expand this first draft of the Total Maximum Daily Load to the full lake because they did not want to create an artificial barrier. But, it's the southern portion of the lake that's been on state and federal lists of impaired water bodies since 2002 due to its high levels of phosphorous. Because of that, the DEC said it has a legal requirement to write a Total Maximum Daily Load for at least the southern end of the lake.

Elizabeth Moran, president of the environmental consulting firm EcoLogic, has been working with Cornell University on mapping and modeling sources of phosphorous pollution in the Cayuga Lake watershed. She said while Cayuga Lake does not have blue-green algae bloom problems like Owasco Lake does, the increase in phosphorous still diminishes the water quality and lake clarity, among other things.

Moran said the lake lingered on the state and federal lists of impaired water bodies until about March 2013, when Cornell University took up the project of modeling the watershed.

"It was a big project," she said. "A lot of people worked on it for multiple years. There are probably 20 technical scientific papers that came out of it, and various students' masters theses and dissertations from Cornell students came out of it. A lot of people felt like celebrating when we turned it in."

The DEC said it, too, had been working on Cayuga Lake prior to Cornell University's work, including working with the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility to decrease its phosphorous loading. Due to the size of the watershed and other factors, however, it did not have the resources at the time to do a comprehensive study as a precursor to the Total Maximum Daily Load.

While DEC officials said they are still reviewing the information Cornell has turned over to them, Moran said the team identified eight point sources of pollution in Cayuga Lake. A point source is a single identifiable discharge such as a wastewater pipe. But one thing that Moran and others have discovered during this multi-year modeling of the lake, is that about 5 percent of the phosphorous pollution is coming from those sources. That means about 95 percent of the pollution, she said, is coming from the watershed.

Traditionally Total Maximum Daily Loads are beneficial for addressing point sources of pollution through its enforcement capabilities. But with approximately 95 percent of the pollution coming from a non-point source like the watershed, the DEC, Moran said, may have to look at other solutions besides a Total Maximum Daily Load. That could be a Nine Elements Watershed Plan, which Cayuga County is working on for Owasco Lake. The Nine Elements Watershed Plan is typically considered a better avenue for non-point sources of pollution, according to the DEC.

"DEC, they committed to doing a TMDL for Cayuga Lake years ago, and even if it turned out the watershed is the problem, they'll have to incorporate that into their TMDL," Moran said. "So they'll look into a Nine Elements Plan. They have the tools. We just turned the tools over to them."

The DEC said for now it is moving forward with a Total Maximum Daily Load, and it looks forward to putting it out for public comment.

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


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