With harmful blue-green algae bloom season around the corner, municipalities who get their water from Owasco Lake have created emergency plans in case of a do not drink order this summer.

Kathleen Cuddy, director of the Cayuga County Health Department, said municipalities are not required to provide their residents drinking water, but every one who buys water from the town of Owasco or city of Auburn plan to do so if needed. 

The health department requested municipalities fill out a "Do No Drink Preparedness Plan," which includes emergency contacts, means of communicating information to the public, where outside water will come from and where and how it will be distributed. If the order is issued, that information is shared with the state Department of Health's Bureau of Water Supply Protection.

The plans come after Owasco Lake's toxic blue-green algae seeped into the bays of Auburn and Owasco's water treatment facilities last summer. Toxins from blue-green algae, called microcystin, were detected, too. Held up inside the algae, they are only released when the algae dies, posing a serious treatment challenge for water operators. 

Those toxins were detected in the drinking water last summer — detected after the water was treated with filters and disinfectant and traveling into the homes of more than half of Cayuga County's residents. Microcystin can cause all sorts of health problems, including liver failure, but the state Department of Health's Wadsworth Lab in Albany determined the toxins were at levels below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines. In October last year, water from Owasco's treatment plant was close to an advisory level for vulnerable populations — children under 6 years old, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women.

But the state of New York has provided about $2 million to Owasco and Auburn for the installation of carbon treatment systems this summer. Both the city and the town hope they will be installed by the beginning of August and are expected to help keep toxins out of the water. The state Department of Health said engineers will be working with the county to confirm that Auburn and Owasco's treatment systems were built as designed.

The engineers, too, will conduct reviews of performance measures prior to their use this season, and the state will have to approve any changes that may be needed.

Still, Cuddy said, it's good for people to be prepared in any instance the department may have to issue a do not drink order, not just for blue-green algae. It was the algae, however, that led to the health department bringing in Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, to work with local officials on communicating and responding to different kinds of crises. Following that discussion and workshops, the department has framed language for issuing do not drink orders and planned strategies for getting information out to the public.

The department is encouraging people to sign up their cell phones for reverse 911, which will alert landline and cell phones of any area emergencies. The Cayuga County Health Department will be posting updates to its Facebook page and website, and Cuddy added that residents should also look to their town officials and websites for more information.

"We know the personal inconvenience and the potential hazards to health, as well as the economic ramifications are significant if there's a do not drink issued," she said. "It can impact the health care providers. It can impact the restaurants. It can impact residents in their homes, and the anxiety and worry it can generate also, which is why we're trying to be very forthright in our information. We want to educate people. We want people to be linked in to information in a timely manner, and we want to be accurate in the information we give out."

The department plans to issue the order and notify water operators if and when toxins reach the vulnerable population level — 0.3 micrograms per liter — and the advisory level for people over the age of six — 1.6 micrograms per liter. Though the EPA's guidelines are over a 10-day period, Cuddy said the state and county health departments are taking even more precaution, issuing the order on a one-day basis.

The state Department of Health said its work with the county health department on microcystin testing was standard protocol for responding to harmful algal blooms. It had not been approached to perform testing in other counties this year.

Most municipalities had not decided at which advisory level they would be providing water, though Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner said the town would do "whatever it takes to make sure people have enough water to sustain themselves."

Many other town clerks and supervisors said their towns, too, would do what they could.

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If an order is issued, the water will not be shut off, Cuddy added. People can still do dishes, wash laundry and flush their toilets. There's a personal choice, too, about whether residents want to drink the water, and at what health advisory level. But towns are preparing to ration out drinking water if toxin levels rise to such a need.

Most towns will use bulk water haulers, and with several certified by the state Department of Health in the area, Cuddy said she called those companies ahead of time to warn them about the potential deluge of customers. Many of the water haulers get their water from an aquifer, Skaneateles Lake or Lake Ontario. Some will drive trucks and station them in various town hubs. Some will drop off water buffaloes, large capacity tanks that the company will come back and refill if needed.

Paul Dudley, owner of Dudley Water Service in Cato, said the last time he had so many requests to be on standby was during Y2K. He said he did deliver a couple of filled tankers to hospitals and nursing homes just in case the world ended in 1999, and people needed water. 

Todd Arnold, owner of Whitehead Water Service in Port Byron, said he's working with more than one municipality, too.

For now, the price tag for bringing in bulk water and bottled water rests on the shoulders of municipalities. But all of the bulk haulers seemed to echo the same message.

"If people don't have drinking water, sometimes you might have to bite the bullet and work something out later," Arnold said. "Between us all (water haulers), nobody is going to go without water. It's just not going to happen."

Despite these plans, Cuddy encouraged people, if they are able, to stow a supply of drinking water for any emergency. The health department recommends having one to two gallons of water per person per day, and the department encourages people to have a three-day supply.

Large facilities in the area that house many people also are working with the health department on emergency water plans. The Cayuga County Jail will work with its food service provider to deliver water if needed. The state Department of Community Supervision and Corrections would not say what its water plans were, but said it does have plans in place "for all different types of potential disruptions to essential services."

The Commons on St. Anthony said it has an agreement with an independent water vendor to provide a constant supply as needed within four hours of an emergency involving the loss of water. The facility, too, keeps a supply of bottled water on hand. Auburn Community Hospital said it has a three to five day supply of bottled water on hand, and has contracts with multiple outside vendors to maintain bottled water supplies. 

Wegmans in Auburn said it did see an increase in bottled water sales last summer when the health department released information that toxins had been detected. The store expects to stock more water again this summer. 

Emergency response plans

The Cayuga County Health Department required municipalities to submit "Do Not Drink Preparedness Plans" in case of a do not drink order. The health department and the majority of municipalities who buy water from the city of Auburn and town of Owasco, shared their prospective water distribution sites and whether they would supply bottled water or utilize a bulk water hauler with The Citizen. This information is subject to change, and residents should contact the health department or their local town office in the event of an emergency for the most updated information.

Municipality Distribution site(s)Bottled or bulk hauler 

 1. Memorial City Hall, 24 South St.

2. Auburn Junior High School, 191 Franklin St.

3. Herman Elementary School, 2 North Herman Ave.

4. Owasco Elementary School, 66 Letchworth St.

5. Auburn High School, 250 Lake Ave.

6. Seward School, 52 Metcalf Drive

7. Genesee Elementary School, 244 Genesee St.

8. Falcon Park, 130 North Division St.

9. Casey Park Elementary School, 101 Pulaski St.

10. Plaza, 30 Grant Ave.

11. Water filtration plant, 160 Swift St.

12. DPW Plaza, 315 Gensee St.

13. Cayuga Community College, 197 Franklin St.

 Bulk water


 1. Owasco Fire Station 1, 7174 Owasco Road

2. Owasco Fire Station 2, 4881 Twelve Corners Road

 Bottled and bulk water

 1. Aurelius Town Hall, 1241 West Genesee St. Road

2. Aurelius Fire House East, 6320 Half Acre Road

3. Aurelius Fire House West, 712 Clark St. Road

4. Cayuga Memorial Hall, 6200 Center St.

 Bottled and bulk water

 1. Fleming Fire Department 1, 6063 West Lake Road

2. Fleming Fire Department 2, 5024 State Route 34

 Bulk water

 1. Throop Town Hall, 7471 Robinson Road

2. Throop Fire Department, 7159 Beech Tree Road

3. Turnpike Road and State Street

 Bottled and bulk water
Cayuga County Water and Sewer Authority Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District, 7413 County House Road Bulk water

 1. Brutus Highway Garage, 2890 Towpath Road

2. Brutus Municipal Building, 9021 North Seneca St.

 Bulk water 

 1. Montezuma Fire Department, 8115 High St.

2. Montezuma Town Offices, 8102 Dock St.

3. Montezuma Highway Department, 8177 Chapman Road

4. Nice N Easy, 41 Clark Street Road

 Bottled and bulk water
Sennett  Sennett Town Hall, 6931 Cherry St. Road Bottled and bulk water

1. Sprinport Town Hall, 859 State Route 326

2. Union Springs Fire Department, 257 Cayuga St.

 Bottled and bulk water
Port Byron 

 1. Port Byron Village Offices/Fire Department: 50 Utica St.

3. Port Byron DPW, 54 Main St.

 Bulk water

 1. Weedsport Village Office/Fire Department, 8892 South St.

2. Weedsport DPW, 2621 Earl St.

 Bulk water
 NYS Thruway Port Byron Area restaurants Bulk water

 1. Fleming Town Hall, 2433 Dublin Road

2. Fleming Fire Dept. 1, 6063 West Lake Road

3. Fleming Fire Dept. 2, 5024 State Route 34

 Bottled and bulk water

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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.