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AURORA — Harmful algal blooms are doing more than just closing beaches this summer— they may also be pushing people out of jobs. 

Gavin VanHorn, a village of Aurora lifeguard who works at the Wells College dock on Cayuga Lake, came to Aurora's board meeting last Wednesday to discuss getting a pay raise to help make up for the limited number of work hours he's seen this year due to HABs.

"We only get 33.5 (hours per week) when blue-green algae doesn't come around," VanHorn said Wednesday. "So on those days, for you it might seem like 'one day we can't swim,' but for us it's another day we're not getting paid and it's a day without income and that can be scary for us."

VanHorn, who will be a freshman at Binghamton University in the fall, said this lack of income is especially concerning considering he has school bills he needs to pay.

As of Wednesday, Aurora's swim area had only been open 13 days of the 24-day season due to the blue-green algae.

In an interview Friday, VanHorn elaborated, sharing that it's frustrating to expect a certain amount of money to come in only to lose many of those hours due to water quality issues. 

"Once everything is already set in stone, you can't get another job," he added.

Typically when a bloom occurs, it's the lifeguards who evacuate the swim area if needed, VanHorn explained, and the time off of work varies depending on how long the blooms last. The Cayuga County Health Department tests the water once the blooms are gone and then it takes 24 hours to get the lab results to confirm it's safe to reopen the beach.  

VanHorn said he enjoys working in the village of Aurora, but due to the water conditions he suspects that he — and many other lifeguards in the region — may be looking for different jobs when next summer approaches. 

The Wells Dock isn't the only swim area on Cayuga Lake that's been closed due to algal blooms this summer. 

Long Point State Park beach, just a few miles down the road from the dock, has been closed six times since its June 9 opening, said Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, in an email.

Long Point's beach is only open on weekends, Keefe explained, and when closed due to water quality issues, the lifeguards assigned there are rotated to other state park beaches instead of losing a day of work. 

"We are always looking to bolster lifeguard staffing, so the silver lining is that Long Point lifeguards have been able to help keep other beaches in the region open," he said.

Although not due to water quality issues this year, Emerson Park beaches have also had one closure this year that sent lifeguards back home with less hours.

County Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Gary Duckett, who was the director of parks last year, explained that the beach — to his knowledge — has only been closed once this summer due to too much turbidity, which made for unsafe swimming conditions.

"We'll typically offer (lifeguards) other work if other work is available," Duckett said. He added that when there isn't other work to be done or it's a stormy, turbid day, lifeguards are usually sent home.

"Unfortunately it does affect their revenue streams, but there's not much else we can do," he added.

As for Aurora, village Mayor Bonnie Apgar Bennett said she feels OK about the village's current hourly pay, $10.40, but admitted that the beach has been closed far more days than anticipated this year. She suggested that VanHorn and his colleagues come up with some summer recreation activities — such as a gully walk or volleyball — they could provide that would make it possible to work even when there are blooms. 

"I agree with you, I think it's not fair you're expecting a certain amount of money to come in over a certain number of days. And I do think we owe that to you," Bennett said. "So I'd like the conversation to continue, and you guys to come up with some way to make this a summer recreation program that doesn't depend on the lake being swimable. And we'd be very happy to look at it."

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Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or megan.ehrhart@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.

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