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Harmful algae Owasco Lake

A harmful algal bloom is seen near the Emerson Park pier in 2017.

AUBURN — Owasco Lake is one of several lakes across the country being considered for a potential USGS-NASA project that would use satellite imaging to develop a system to more quickly detect and respond to anomalies like harmful algae blooms.

The Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency last week approved providing a letter of support to help the project secure grant funding, joining the city of Auburn which also approved a letter of support recently.

Developed by Nima Pahlevan, a chief research scientist at NASA's Sciences and Exploration Directorate, the project seeks to develop a software tool that would automatically update local stakeholders, like the city of Auburn, the WQMA, the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council or any other similar groups that sign up, when satellites detect anomalies on Owasco Lake, particularly harmful algal blooms.

“Essentially the goal is to tell stakeholders where to sample and where the hot spots are where there's something abnormal in the water,” Pahlevan said.

WQMA agency staff member Michelle Wunderlich said the agency supported the project in part because there are still so many unknowns as to why HABs are so common and potent on Owasco Lake.

“We wanted to support any research that could help protect our water quality,” Wunderlich said

The project would use data from Landsat, a collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that has used satellites to produce remote sensing data to assist in agriculture, geology, forestry, regional planning, education, mapping, and global change research since 1972, according to the mission's official website.

The project would also involve a “ground truth” portion, according to Dave O'Donnell, an engineer with the Upstate Freshwater Institute, a non-profit research group dedicated to improving water quality and freshwater research which is cooperating on the project.

Essentially, according to O'Donnell, the UFI would bring its specialized equipment to the lake to measure things like how the properties of light underwater, as well as taking water samples back to their lab for analysis, to compare their results to what the satellite detects to refine the software's detection algorithms.

Owasco Lake has the dubious distinction of being targeted for the development of the project, along with nearby Oneida Lake, because of the frequency of HABs on their waters.

“Owasco is unfortunately a good target for this because the blooms are pretty frequent, so it's a good place to test the algorithms they're developing,” O'Donnell said.

While the project is being pursued on an ad-hoc basis for now, Pahlevan said, if he can secure funding and successfully develop the system based on the data gathered at Owasco Lake and nearby Oneida Lake, it could be expanded to aid in detection in every body of water across the country.

“It's very easy to essentially expand this well beyond these two locations. So the entire state will benefit from it when it's developed,” Pahlevan said.

City of Auburn Director of Municipal Utilities Seth Jensen said the city was willing to support the project based on how it might assist them in making decisions regarding water quality and the possibility for doing even more than detecting just HABs.

“By the sounds of it, it's kind of an early detection technology, but who knows where it will end up going?” Jensen said. “You go in trying to cure one ailment and end up curing a different one.”

For more information on the Landsat program, including access to thousands of its freely available satellite imaging, visit

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Staff writer Ryan Franklin can be reached at (315) 282-2230 or Follow him on Twitter @RyanNYFranklin


County government reporter