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AUBURN — Owasco Lake is pea soup, and so are many other lakes across New York state. Harmful algal blooms are plaguing Skaneateles and Cayuga lakes, too, and local officials are ramping up efforts to protect drinking water and keep it clean.

Drew Snell, watershed specialist with the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program, said he's been inundated with calls about the northern end of Owasco. The program is flying drones and taking photos of the blooms, which Snell said are everywhere. It's a marked change from August, when the cooler, rainy weather showed hardly any algae.

"Here they are, lo and behold," Snell said about the blooms at an Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council meeting Tuesday morning. "The reports are from all over. There's not one area that's exempt, or immune, I should say."

Toxins, called microcystin, have been detected in blooms from samples sent in on Sept. 11. Microcystin can cause adverse health effects in people including nausea, headaches, upper respiratory issues and skin irritation. It can cause health problems and can even be lethal in animals, too.  

Eileen O'Connor, director of the county's environmental health division, said testing of the city of Auburn and town of Owasco's water supply has increased from two to three times per week. The town and the city supply water to over 45,000 people in Cayuga County. Both Auburn and Owasco activated their toxin treatment systems on Friday, and they have been running ever since. 

A look inside new Auburn, Owasco harmful algal toxin treatment systems

John West, water treatment operator for Auburn, said he did see algae coming into the city's intake pipe on Monday. County health officials have sent in a sample Monday to the state Department of Health's laboratory in Albany for analysis and were still waiting on the results, which usually take about 24 hours. Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner said the town's treatment plant has not seen any algae so far.

Skaneateles Lake, considered one of the cleanest in the country, saw harmful algal blooms this past weekend. The Onondaga County Health Department said they contained elevated levels of toxin, according to a release.

Tony Prestigiacomo, a research scientist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Finger Lakes Water Hub, said harmful algae was not expected to occur in Skaneateles Lake. Scott Cook, supervisor of the hub, said the lake has two intake pipes. To try and avoid algae, the upper intake was shut off and the deeper intake pipe is being used. 

The health department, city of Syracuse, town of Skaneateles and state officials are monitoring the public water supply, which has no filtration system and only uses chlorine to disinfect the water. Chlorine does not treat the toxins. It does kill the algae, but that could release toxins that may be inside. 

In a release on Monday, the Onondaga County Health Department told residents who draw water directly from the lake via private intakes to not use the water for drinking, making infant formula, making ice, brushing teeth, preparing food, washing dishes or for pets. If blooms are present in the vicinity of the private intake, the department said to not use the water for bathing.

The department reminded residents that toxins cannot be treated via boiling, adding chlorine or using ultra-violet radiation. O'Connor said the Cayuga County Health Department has issued fliers with similar guidelines to those living on Owasco and Cayuga lakes it believes draw water from the lake. The department plans to issue fliers to those on Skaneateles soon.

O'Connor said the latest bloom spotted on Cayuga Lake was not near the village of Aurora or the Wells College water intake pipe. The health department, she added, has been testing the water there when blooms are found in that area. No toxins have been detected so far. 

While harmful algae has been rampant locally, it's also been so across the state. Cook said due to the flourish of blooms on water bodies this weekend, the DEC updated its harmful algal blooms notifications page on Monday. Typically that page is updated on Fridays alone. Prestigiacomo said that more than 15 water bodies were added to the list between Friday and Monday. Fifty-six water bodies were reported to have blooms on the DEC's website as of Tuesday afternoon.

One of the things the Finger Lakes Water Hub hopes to do is identify why these harmful algal blooms are occurring. 

"Where are you going with your research?" asked Steve Lynch, director of the Cayuga County Planning and Economic Development Department to Prestigiacomo and Cook. "Are you developing some theories or some speculation as to what's going on?"

Prestigiacomo said the hub is looking at temperature, light availability, nutrients, salinity, pH and other kinds of data to try and determine what might be triggering the blooms. He referred to storms in July, which created "episodic pulses of nutrients followed by long, warm, kind of stagnant conditions like we're seeing now," a good formula for creating blooms. The forecast for at least the next week looks much the same.

"These are all things on the table, all things that we're looking at," he added. "We're still gathering a lot of information. It's really interesting what happened to Skaneateles. No one really expected that. Every time I think we get things figured out, we have a monkey wrench thrown in."

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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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