blue-green algae

Algal blooms can be seen in the Poplar Cove area of Owasco Lake in late September 2016.

Treated drinking water for the town of Owasco and the city of Auburn showed detectable levels of blue-green algae toxins in the latest round of tests — Owasco seeing the highest levels to date.

The Cayuga County Health Department said Owasco's water, which is distributed to the town of Owasco and the Fleming Water District, detected levels of .21 and .17 micrograms of toxins per liter from samples collected Wednesday.

Auburn's treated drinking water showed .16 micrograms of toxins from Wednesday's samples. Auburn provides drinking water to residents in the city of Auburn and the towns of Aurelius, Fleming Water District 6, Throop, Mentz, Brutus, Montezuma, Sennett, Springport Water District 2 and the villages of Port Byron, Weedsport and Cayuga.

The health department said it collected additional samples from both public water systems Thursday and results are expected back Friday afternoon. Though Owasco's levels have increased, the department said the levels are still below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Health Advisory of .3 micrograms per liter for children under 6.

Meanwhile, three area groups are calling for more investment in eliminating blue-green algae blooms. The Owasco Watershed Lake Association, the Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency and the Finger Lakes Land Trust have called on New York state to increase funding and resources towards efforts to decrease nutrient runoff and restore watersheds.

During OWLA's monthly meeting Wednesday night, dozens gathered to express their concern about toxins found in the treated drinking water. Eileen O'Connor, the county's director of environmental health, stood in front of the group at the Owasco Yacht Club.

"I'm really sorry to have to be here," she said into the microphone. "I only seem to come when bad things happen."

It was particularly tense in the room Wednesday night, after test results showed toxins in Auburn's treated water after days of below detectable levels. The lowest level of toxins the state Department of Health's laboratory can detect is .15 micrograms per liter.

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O'Connor said there could be more detectable levels in the future, as water treatment operators for Auburn and Owasco had spotted more algae in the raw, or untreated, water entering the plant. That suggestion became true Thursday evening when the latest test results came back positive for both plants.

Several people asked what the county and state are doing to treat the water and decrease blue-green algae blooms in Owasco Lake. O'Connor said the treatment plants are increasing use of powder activated carbon and disinfectants, in addition to meeting with the plants' design professionals to see what else might be done.

Similar discussions were had at Thursday morning's Water Quality Management Agency meeting, where O'Connor again presented the last couple of week's trials and what is being done to remedy the problem.

As far as the long-term situation of blue-green algae blooms, O'Connor said the problem still lies with nutrient runoff into the lake. While the state Department of Environmental Conservation has reported that the lake's phosphorous levels are low, Tim Schneider, Owasco Lake watershed inspector, said he has noticed increased levels of nitrogen in the lake. O'Connor also pointed out that a 2015 study of the lake done by John Halfman, a professor of environmental studies at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, showed phosphorous levels tend to fluctuate with levels reaching as high as 23.7 parts per billion and as low as 8.7.

A resolution to accelerate efforts to remove toxins from the treated water and to accelerate efforts to "further reduce nutrient loading from any and all known sources, including stream bank erosion, shoreline erosion, lawn fertilizers, septic systems, roadside ditches and the runoff from agricultural fields," was passed at the meeting.

Similarly the Finger Lakes Land Trust called on the state to invest $100 million over the next decade to address the threat of toxic algae. In a release, the land trust highlights several ways to invest those funds. 

"The region truly stands at a crossroads," said Andrew Zepp, executive director of the trust, in a release. "While this may seem like an extraordinary investment to some people, there will be a greater public cost in the long run if we fail to act now."

For more information on blue-green algae visit cayugacounty.us/health. Those with questions may call the health department for assistance at (315) 252-1560.

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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.