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Cayuga County Legislature chairman contributes to Senate water quality report
CAYUGA COUNTY

Cayuga County Legislature chairman contributes to Senate water quality report

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blue-green algae water

Blue-green algae floats into the slow sand filter at the city of Auburn's water treatment plant.

Owasco Lake's blue-green algae troubles did not make it into the New York State Senate's Water Quality Report released on Jan. 3, but there is a nod to funding for addressing algae blooms.

Keith Batman, chairman of the Cayuga County Legislature, testified at a joint New York State Senate Committee hearing on water quality and contamination on Sept. 7. Seventeen days later, the treated drinking water of approximately 45,000 Cayuga County residents had detectable levels of microcystin, a toxin that can be released from harmful blue-green algae blooms. The toxin has been known to cause liver failure, kidney failure, and have other serious health effects.

At the time of Batman's testimony, the raw water coming into the city of Auburn and town of Owasco's treatment plants had detectable levels of the toxin, but plant operators had been successful keeping it out of the finished water. Amidst discussions focused on nitrogen loading in Long Island and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination of water in Hoosick Falls, Batman told state officials that he had come to Albany in hopes of avoiding the question, "How and why did we not do more to save the Finger Lakes?"

Citing the blooms, toxins, and increase in invasive species, Batman said it's "becoming commonplace," for beaches to close and the water to taste and smell unpleasant. He highlighted some of the work the county and others are doing to help decrease the number of algae blooms. He cited the county's Manure Management Working Group and the county Legislature's adoption of its 14 Point Plan on storage, processing and transport of manure. He mentioned the additional local funding towards water treatment to keep toxins out of the finished water. But, he said, local resources are "not enough."

"Current New York State regulations are inadequate to prevent the nutrient and sediment runoff, and DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) staffing is insufficient to enforce the regulations in place," Batman said. "According to our agricultural community, funds are needed to implement best practices, and our municipalities need assistance to address storm water.

"More importantly, this may be the time to reevaluate the role of state agencies as they pertain to the implementation of local solutions to local problems impacting our water sources," he added. "In our experience, these agencies have impeded our ability to address the water quality challenges that we face."

The county's Water Quality Management Agency is considering updating the Owasco Lake Watershed's rules and regulations to be more stringent, there had been some concern that state officials would block the process, which had been done in past attempts. Batman also told state officials that not everyone is willing to participate with voluntary measures, and relying on those alone can make it difficult to create any real change.

In a phone interview with The Citizen Wednesday afternoon, Batman said he still believes it's critically important for the state to allow local officials to have more control and input in identifying problems and solutions. He said would his testimony have come just weeks later when toxins were discovered in the treated drinking water, he would have had a different request. 

"I would have prepared them for bigger requests, find out what we have to do to fix the water problem, and also to look more seriously at watershed restoration and protection," he said. 

Though the report does not include Cayuga County's issues specifically, the committee did release action recommendations and funding proposals as a result of all the testimony gathered. It calls for the creation of an independent entity focused on the drinking water needs in the state.

Called the Drinking Water Quality Institute in the report, it would be in charge of setting state requirements for unregulated contaminants and developing a list of those contaminants for public water suppliers to test for. The committee suggested that regulations should be stricter than federal law or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisories. Microcystin is currently one of those contaminants not regulated by the federal government. 

Though he hadn't seen the full report, Batman said Wednesday that he was the only person that talked about harmful algal blooms during the multiple hours of testimony. He said he was glad to hear that algal blooms were mentioned under the funding recommendation portion.

While there's still more to be done, Batman said Wednesday that he's more hopeful than he was in September about the county's partnership with state officials.

"The DEC has actually reacted in a very positive way to our requests associated with the needs to collaborate, to be more open, to be more communicative, to join as partners in the process," he said. "I think that's a result of the toxins. In some respects, that's too bad. In other respects, I'm really feeling at this point that we're moving in the right direction in terms of forming a partnership with the state."

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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