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Local and state partners are working together to monitor harmful algal blooms on Owasco Lake, but testing of potential toxins in those blooms is limited. 

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said Owasco Lake, along with Honeyoe, Seneca and Otisco lakes, have shoreline surveillance programs of blooms, studying where they're happening and why. Owasco Lake's is a research effort funded by a $600,000 grant from the state.

With 80 samples allocated for water quality testing by a lab at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and 44 samples used in 2016, the DEC rolled over the remaining 36 for this year. Some of the samples are also tested by the state Department of Health's Wadsworth Lab in Albany, though not all.

Watershed Inspector Tim Schneider said the program has already used six tests on Owasco Lake, and he's concerned that more will be needed.

"My fear is if we keep doing as many samples as we are, we're going to go through them in three weeks," Schneider told members of the Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency last week. "From our perspective, we have to filter our samples out and say, 'OK, this one isn't as green as the other one,' so if I get 10 samples, I might only be able to send out two in a week."

Scott Kishbaugh, chief of the DEC's Lakes Monitoring and Assessment Section with the Bureau of Water Assessment Management, said should inspectors need more samples to be tested, they can ask for an amendment to the $600,000 grant, and the DEC would review the proposal.

In the six samples that have been tested through the surveillance program this year, no measurable levels of toxins have been found, he added. 

"We think that Tim (Schneider) and the local team did a terrific job of documenting blooms through a combination of visual surveillance and zones that have been established with periodic sampling, and they're continuing to do a terrific job this year," Kishbaugh said. 

In the meantime visual surveillance is the most important focus, he said, and the public should realize that a bloom could crop up in a place that has not yet been reported by inspectors.

But with some members of the public wanting their water tested, local officials are having to explain why that's not always possible.

For one thing, there are few laboratories in New York capable of analyzing microcystin, the main toxin of concern. The Cayuga County Health Department utilizes the Wadsworth Lab to make its public health decisions regarding microcystin. Microcystin can cause multiple health complications including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and irritation of the skin, eyes or respiratory system, according to the county health department. Microcystin is also a liver toxin. There have been reports in some places of dogs swimming in a bloom, licking the algae off of their fur and dying soon after.

The health department does not have the authority to shut down an entire lake, so it's encouraging the public to remain vigilant and not swim in water that looks scummy or discolored. Kishbaugh said it's important to avoid exposure to a bloom, and it's better to stay out rather than wait for a sampling result or a sampling team to come out.

The health department is however responsible for public bathing beaches. Environmental Health Director Eileen O'Connor said local lifeguards are trained to identify blooms, and if there is one, they close the beach. A health department staff member will come out to confirm by sight, but the only way to tell if the bloom is truly toxic or not, is to test the water.

According to the state Department of Health regulations, O'Connor said the health department must wait 24 hours after a bloom dissipates before sending a sample to Albany for testing. There is no limitation on the number of samples the health department sends in to Wadsworth Lab so far, O'Connor said. 

What's been tricky, O'Connor said, is the blooms will dissipate and the water appears clear in the morning, but as the waters warm in the afternoon, the blooms tend to reappear.

The health department has opted to stop issuing press releases when beaches are closed, leaving it up to visitors and residents to contact the beach they want to visit for the latest information. Public Health Director Kathleen Cuddy said the reason for that is because reports of blooms "were coming fast and furious, on and off," in an email to The Citizen.

"Since HAB issues can change so quickly, it really seemed the best if the beaches kept their patrons informed rather than people waiting to hear from the Health Dept.," she wrote. 

Besides that, beaches could be closed for other reasons the health department may not be aware of, she added.

The health department also regulates the public drinking water, and has been sending in samples to the Wadsworth Lab. Those tests are also unlimited, but have been occurring about weekly. Samples have come back with no detectable levels of toxins so far.

O'Connor told members of the county's water quality management agency meeting that if members of the public still want their water sampled individually, she has a list of labs in the state of Ohio that will test the water.

Steve Lynch, director of the county's planning and economic development department, said at the Aug. 3 meeting that there's a lot of different testing for the public to sort out. 

"It's important to make a distinction between sort of public health policy and the practical need to tell people that if it looks like this, you don't have the benefit of analysis even if you have a lab right in Auburn, so stay away from it," Lynch said. "There's value to knowing, sampling some of these to know more about it from a research point of view, and this is what happened point of view, but clearly if things go the way they are, we're going to have a lot more visual confirmations of algal blooms that we're not going to be able to confirm if they were blue-green or wasn't, etc. so I think it's important for the public to just know that they don't go in it."

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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.

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