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SYRACUSE — Skaneateles, Owasco and Cayuga lakes took the spotlight Monday at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in the second of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's four harmful algal bloom summits statewide.

The summits are part of a $65 million proposal in the state budget to fund watershed plans for 12 priority lakes across the state at $500,000 each. Remaining funds are slated for projects in the watersheds that hope to reduce harmful algal blooms, a growing problem in New York and across the country that is affecting drinking water and recreational activities. 

Local and state leaders gathered Monday for the first of two full-day technical sessions prior to a public meeting that will be held Tuesday night. State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, state Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball and State Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker kicked off the session, which took a deeper look into what potentially causes harmful algal blooms and what is being done and can be done to protect water quality.

Experts from in state and out provided insight throughout the day, including Steven Wilhelm of the University of Tennessee, David Matthews of Upstate Freshwater Institute, Hans Paerl of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Judy Westrick of Wayne State University, Greg Boyer of SUNY ESF and Tim Davis of Bowling Green State University. 

In an interview with The Citizen during a break Monday, Seggos said the summits are meant to bring all ideas to the table. He compared it to the Regional Economic Development Council, where the state has resources to distribute, but needs to hear from local leadership what a community needs. 

"That's what this is," he said, "because every watershed is different, and we don't want to, you know, pick a project to fund that might alienate another constituency. It's better to have them all at the table at the same time, drafting the same solutions."

Seggos said it was important for the state to step up and address this problem, considering federal agencies are cutting staff and dollars in these areas.

"I think it's going to show how important it is for the state to be in a position it's in right now," he said. "Local leadership on these issues is going to be so important. State leadership is going to be so important, in the absence of federal leadership."

Cayuga, Skaneateles and Owasco lakes are puzzlers for the state because of their relatively low concentrations of phosphorous, a nutrient known to spur harmful algal blooms. The call continues to be reducing nutrient loading into the lakes, however. During the session the DEC reported that Owasco is the worst of the bunch, with 58 weeks of blooms since 2012. Cayuga Lake had 24 weeks and Skaneateles had four weeks during the same time frame.

Owasco is also challenging, DEC officials said, because it has the largest watershed to lake area of all the Finger Lakes at 17:1. Owasco has seen some of the most toxic blooms, too.

Scientists at the table speculated what makes blooms toxic. Microcystin is the most common toxin in Cayuga County lakes' blooms, and it can cause nausea, skin irritation, respiratory problems and even liver failure if consumed at high levels. The research about what causes toxicity is preliminary and divisive. Some feel that nitrogen plays a role. Others said lower temperatures may make the cells more toxic. It's a mystery researchers from the Finger Lakes to Germany to China are working to uncover. 

The panel and audience also discussed the impacts of climate change. With an increasing number of 100-year and 500-year flood events across the country, lakes are getting inundated with heavy shots of nutrients coming from runoff and erosion. Several local farmers talked about cover crops, buffer strips and other best management practices they implement on their lands, many paid for out of their own pockets. Some audience members questioned whether what's being done is enough, and if those best management practices need to be strengthened for more intense storm events.

Several representatives from the farming community said it boils down to money. Though the state Agriculture and Markets Department and DEC listed a number of grant programs available to farmers, municipalities and homeowners alike, the cost of taking land out of production can be a hardship. Officials cautioned, too, that in an effort to be proactive, some farms have installed new systems or best management practices that ended up proving ineffective. Before sinking money into something, landowners want to make sure what they invest in will work. 

The session also considered what to do about phosphorous and nitrogen that has been settled in the lakes for years. Chemicals that can remove phosphorous, experts said, are Band-Aids that would need to be used on a regular basis. Dredging the bottoms of lakes has been effective, but mostly for small waterbodies, they added. Harvesting weeds on lakes has also shown to help reduce nutrients, but is not enough on its own.

Technical discussions are expected to pick back up Tuesday morning, where officials will cover drinking water treatments and harmful algal bloom monitoring and analysis, among other things. The public will have the opportunity to hear an overview of the summit at 6 p.m. 

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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County Government Reporter