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New York state's promised $600,000 on blue-green algae research on Owasco Lake delivered
ENVIRONMENT

New York state's promised $600,000 on blue-green algae research on Owasco Lake delivered

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AUBURN — The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced Tuesday that the state's promise of $600,000 made last year to study algal blooms and implement pollution reduction projects in the Owasco Lake watershed has been delivered. The funds arrived more than a year after being promised, and after nearly three weeks of testing of the town of Owasco and city of Auburn's treated water, with results showing fluctuating low levels of blue-green algae toxins.

While the funds were put into the 2015-2016 state budget, Gilda Brower, secretary for the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, said she and other association members received word on Monday that the money was finally coming to help implement the many projects OWLA, Cayuga Community College and others have been working on. She was grateful for the news.

"It's an absolutely amazing, crystallizing moment," Brower said.

Scientists at the DEC have been perplexed by Owasco Lake, not anticipating the frequency or severity of recent algal blooms based on its relatively low phosphorous levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited high phosphorous levels as one of the primary factors spurring blue-green algae blooms.

Some of the projects the state highlighted that the $600,000 will fund include new research on agricultural and stormwater phosphorous reduction practices, monitoring of Owasco Lake and its tributaries to determine sources of contaminant loading, harmful algal bloom sample analysis and food web monitoring, open water monitoring buoy deployment and maintenance and continued septic sampling.

"DOH and DEC will continue to work together to better understand these types of problems in our continued efforts to ensure clean and safe drinking water for all New Yorkers," said Howard Zucker, commissioner of the state Department of Health in a release.

In addition, the DEC has established a Finger Lakes Water Hub, a multi-region team to address water quality issues across the Finger Lakes. With the help of research partners, the hub will leverage the state's ongoing efforts to safeguard water quality.

"It is critical that New York study what is causing algal blooms in Owasco Lake and continue to take action to reduce pollution in order to safeguard water quality in the Finger Lakes and across New York State," said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the DEC, in a press release. "As we continue the strong efforts of the Governor's Water Quality Rapid Response Team, the work of the Finger Lakes Water Hub and the State's investments to study algal blooms will be valuable resources in helping New Yorkers understand and mitigate this emerging issue."

The Cayuga County Board of Health had sent a letter to the Rapid Response Team earlier this month, requesting assistance "to protect Owasco Lake from phosphorus loading from agricultural operations and funding to stabilize many watercourses." A spokesperson for the state Department of Health said agency representatives will be meeting with local leaders on Friday afternoon to discuss next steps.

In addition to this latest news from the state, the Owasco Watershed Management Council is moving forward with two major projects that also hope to improve water quality in Owasco Lake. At Tuesday morning's meeting, several council members planned to draft new rules and regulations around the watershed, which have not been updated in more than 20 years. In addition, the council is working with the DEC on a Nine Element Watershed Plan.

Cayuga County will be specifically responsible for implementing the Nine Element Watershed Plan, which will identify best practices to reduce phosphorous and other pollutants in the watershed. Michele Wunderlich, associate planner for the county's Department of Planning and Economic Development, said the plan involves a lot of modeling to figure out where nutrient loading is coming from. The council will take the lead, working with state's Department of State and the DEC. Wunderlich said they are expected to finish modeling where the loading comes from and site-specific best management practices by Aug. 31, 2019.

The other option the county had looked into was implementing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which is the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed in a water body that still meets standards implemented by the U.S. Clean Water Act. Wunderlich said the DEC did not believe a TMDL on phosphorous was needed, again, citing relatively low phosphorous levels in Owasco Lake. 

But according to John Halfman, who has studied Owasco Lake for years and is a professor of geolimnology and hydrogeochemistry at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, phosphorous "always has been, and always will be," the reason for increased algal blooms. He said once phosphorous is dumped into the lake, it's likely that it will stay there, and can even take up to a year before it particulates and helps produce blue-green algae blooms. Even when the Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency asked the DEC to list Owasco Lake as an impaired water body due to the number of blue-green algae blooms on the lake (which it did), the DEC did not add a TMDL for phosphorous.

But the differences between the Nine Element Plan and TMDL's caused some confusion as Auburn City councilors were considering a draft resolution to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to develop, adopt and implement a TMDL for Owasco Lake. This was despite the county having already begun the Nine Element Plan. While the draft resolution did not cite phosphorous specifically, it called to reduce the "input of specific pollutant(s) that restrict waterbody uses."

Wunderlich said they chose the Nine Element Watershed Plan because it will allow them to look at phosphorous and other pollutants including sediment, nitrogen and pathogens. A TMDL, however, is only used for one specific source of pollution.

"The Nine Point Element Plan is more of a broad brush," Halfman said. "It looks at many different parameters to fix as many elements as you can."

Both strategies, however, are very similar, and some council members worried that the county and the city suggesting both would look duplicative. Auburn City Councilor Debby McCormick said she would discuss holding or pulling that TMDL resolution for Thursday night's Auburn City Council meeting to get more information.

Besides the Nine Point Plan, the council agreed to look at Owasco Lake Watershed's Rules and Regulations. In a letter to the council, Chairman of the county Legislature Keith Batman said those had not been updated since 1984, and called it "one important step in confronting our watershed issues."

Several members of the council plan to draft new rules and regulations based on those implemented in the Skaneateles Lake Watershed. The Skaneateles Lake Watershed is much more strict in its rules, partially because the drinking water drawn from that lake does not go through a filtration system, according to the state Department of Health. 

Bruce Natale, environmental engineer for the county's Department of Planning and Economic Development, warned that in a 2009 or 2010 meeting with a representative from the state's Department of Agriculture and Markets, the county was discouraged from implementing any more stringent regulations in the watershed. The representative, Natale said, even considered loosening some of the rules and regulations already in place.

"It was very disheartening," Natale said. "But we have to realize Ag and Markets could play an incredible role in this. But maybe it's time." 

In its release, the state did cite Ag & Markets as one of its partners in the effort to safeguard water quality. According to the release, more than $7.5 million is already being spent by the state to address Owasco Lake's watershed through the Water Quality Improvement Project Program and the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Abatement and Control Grants, programs which provide DEC protection funds to municipalities and farmers in the Owasco Lake watershed to improve wastewater treatment facilities, stop erosion along roadsides and stream banks and improve farm efficiencies. 

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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