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Local officials discuss future plans for fighting blue-green algae toxins in Owasco Lake
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Local officials discuss future plans for fighting blue-green algae toxins in Owasco Lake

blue-green algae water

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

AUBURN — Blue-green algae, also know as cyanobacteria, remains on the brains of local officials as they gear up for next summer.

This week, water operators for the city of Auburn's treatment plant continued exploring new design options to keep toxins called microcystin from getting into the treated water, and state and local officials continued their discussions on next steps, too. Members of the Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency discussed the various follow-ups at a meeting Thursday morning.

Steve Lynch, director of the Cayuga County Planning & Economic Development Department said requests for proposals have been submitted for the county's Nine Element Watershed Plan, which aims to identify sources of pollution in Owasco Lake and create best management practices. The deadline for those proposals is Dec. 15, and Lynch said he hopes the county will choose a consultant by the following week. 

Eileen O'Connor, the county's director of Environmental Health, updated the group on water sampling. She said that the state Department of Health has had staffing cuts to the Wadsworth Center, the state's laboratory in Albany, which has been testing samples of raw and treated water for microcystin. O'Connor said she was concerned that the cuts could affect the center's capacity for testing and slow down the turnaround of those results. 

Despite that, she said discussions are continuing with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. DEC Region 7 Director Matthew Marko and other DEC staff members came to the county Health Department this week to discuss blue-green algae and some initial planning steps. O'Connor said she was pleased that they came to the office to collaborate and discuss how to coordinate efforts going forward.

When asked about the status of the expired Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit that the DEC has been reviewing updates to since February, O'Connor said DEC officials will likely need a few more months before they finalize it. CAFO permits are typically issued to dairy farms with 300 or more cows, and are meant to keep farms in compliance with both the state's Environmental Conservation Law and the federal Clean Water Act. Individual permits are issued to each CAFO farm, and DEC officers conduct inspections to make sure the farms are in compliance.

Bruce Natale, environmental engineer for the county, said he thought it was funny that during the meeting with DEC officials, they used addresses for farms to designate where CAFOs are in the Owasco Lake watershed. DEC officers have said there are four CAFOs in the watershed, but based on grazing and manure spreading, Natale said he believes there are as few as eight and as many as 13 CAFOs in the watershed. All CAFOs are still subject to inspection, regardless of what watershed they cover, however.

Meanwhile Seth Jensen, director of Auburn's Municipal Utilities, told members that he and other staff visited the Onondaga County Water Authority (OCWA) in Marcellus on Tuesday to get more ideas for treating the water. An engineer hired by the city of Auburn to study the treatment plant and propose designs to keep out microcystin from the finished water, accompanied them. 

Lynch asked Jensen if there were any quick fixes discussed, considering the time crunch of needing a plan in place before next year.

"No," Jensen said. "Yes, and no. It depends on the treatment options that are preferred at the end of the day. We're going to choose the best. Obviously cost weighs into it, but we'll look at every option no matter what the cost is."

While Auburn is working with Owasco's water treatment operators, Jensen said there may not be one design solution for both plants. 

"Each plant is like a living, breathing organism," he said. "You could have the same chemicals and process, and one works perfect, and the other one fails."

Ed Wagner, town of Owasco supervisor, said he is working to get an engineering study underway for the town's plant, too.

Besides short-term strategies, Jensen said the city is looking into long-term emergency plans, like potential second sources of water. There were general discussions about working with the city of Syracuse to use water from Skaneateles Lake, or extending a pipe from the town of Sterling, which is partially serviced by Onondaga County, to Weedsport and distribute water from there. Jensen said they hope to have those ideas and others explored in more detail, especially if the Cayuga County Water and Sewer Authority were to be awarded state grant funds through the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council. Those awards are expected to be announced soon.

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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