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SYRACUSE — Harmful algal bloom experts gave state officials and members of the public much to chew on Tuesday night during the second of four harmful algal bloom (HAB) summits — this one covering Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles lakes. 

The public meeting held at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry followed two full days of technical sessions, all of which focused on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $65 million proposal in the state budget to combat HABs. Twelve lakes have been designated priorities for the state, but state officials emphasized that any water body in New York experiencing HABs is eligible for funding. 

"Protecting New York's water quality is a top priority of this administration, and in order to ensure future generations have access to clean drinking water, we will continue to work with communities throughout Central New York to address the growing threat of harmful algal blooms," Cuomo said in a press release. "By bringing together experts from across the country at this regional summit, the state and the regional community will work together to develop new and innovative strategies to safeguard our water for years to come."

HAB experts Greg Boyer, of SUNY ESF, and Tim Davis, of Bowling Green University in Ohio, gave the state advice Tuesday night as it begins to draft action plans for reducing blooms. Both said monitoring water quality should continue to be an important piece in the initiative. 

Davis highlighted Lake Erie, which used nutrient reduction methods to improve its water quality. When things got better, however, people grew complacent. 

"We took our foot off the gas," Davis said. "We took our eye off the ball, and what happened is HABs, the HABs came back. Nature has a way of changing on us when we're not looking, and when it did, our land use changed, and the blooms came back, and we were not prepared."

That's one thing that worries Lloyd Wilson of the state Department of Health. His fear, he said, is that next year blooms may not appear on some of these lakes, and people will think the state's investment is not worthwhile. 

"That doesn't mean we don't need to go forward with the lake protection actives we're talking about," he said. "This is a long haul."

Davis also recommended lakes purchase equipment that can track water quality data when scientists aren't in the field. 

Boyer, who leads a lab that tests many of the state's HAB samples for toxins, said he hopes the state and others have the courage to do something and get started. 

"It is really hard to predict exactly what is going to happen when you do a certain BMP (best management practice) so you also have to have the courage to be able to say, 'Oops, maybe this wasn't the way we should have done it,'" Boyer added. 

Mark Burger, executive director of the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District, also gave officials ideas for the lakes' plans including investing in bigger, better buffer strips of vegetation for farms and homeowners, creating more wetland areas and storm water retention ponds and working more with residences and highway departments on programs.

The plans are supposed to be completed in May and then opened for public comment. In a break prior to the public meeting, state Department of Environmental Conservation research scientist Jacqueline Lendrum said funding for implementations will flow mostly through the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Abatement and Control Grant Program and the Water Quality Improvement Project Program. Municipalities, soil and water conservation districts, land trusts and others will still have to apply for the funding, with priority given to the 12 lakes. 

What's perhaps both good and bad for Owasco and Cayuga lakes is that both are already in the process of different water quality plans that look to map sources of pollution and then reduce them. Lendrum said that information will help drive their HAB action plans, though she said the HAB plans will be finished before the ones already in the works. 

The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council is also working on updating the watershed rules and regulations. During the technical sessions, however, DEC officials emphasized partnering, education and voluntary projects in the watershed and less on enforcement. When asked about Owasco Lake's rules and regulations update after the sessions, Lendrum said constituents in the Hudson Valley summit brought the consideration up as well.

"It's something that we, as state agencies, we need to go back and think about it," she said. "We have some of the legal team looking at what they are, what role they play, how they intersect with the other regulations at play here and if we need to take an action there. It's definitely something to look at and think about." 

Two summits remain with one focusing on lakes in the north country on March 20 and one focusing on western New York on March 26.  

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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County Government Reporter