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Concerned residents watch a video during the Save Owasco Now community forum on Owasco Lake and safe drinking water.

A newly-formed community group intent on cleaning up Owasco Lake will meet for a second time on Dec. 12. Called Save Owasco Now, the group will collect signatures on a petition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo calling for him to develop, adopt and implement a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for Owasco Lake.

A TMDL is the maximum amount of pollutant that a water body can take while still remaining in compliance with the U.S. Clean Water Act. Typically one is implemented when a water body is labeled "impaired," something that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation designated Owasco Lake as due to the frequent and intense harmful algal blooms. 

Auburn City Councilor Terry Cuddy said the lake has been on this list of impaired water bodies since 1998, and it is about time for the state to implement a TMDL. But so far the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has not done so because Owasco Lake's phosphorous levels have been below actionable levels. Phosphorous, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is one of the leading causes of blue-green algae blooms.

But Cuddy thinks the narrative of the lake — and the fact that microcystin toxins released from blue-green algae blooms made it into the treated drinking water this year — should convince the state that one is needed and needed immediately.

"If it's another rough summer, there might be an advisory where we can't serve the water," Cuddy said. "We need help. This is a crisis. We haven't reached the threshold of the (EPA's) advisory (for microcystin toxins), but why would we want to tempt that with uncertainty? Why would we want to tempt that with inaction?"

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Cuddy expects to collect between 500 and 1,000 signatures on the Save Owasco Now group's petition. Members will then draft a letter to send to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a letter that follows one sent by Auburn City Council members on Oct. 20 also asking for a TMDL. In addition, the letter had asked for the state to adopt drinking water standards to protect public health from cyanotoxins.

Though Cuddy is not aware of a response from Cuomo to the council's letter, he said he believes the governor is the one to appeal to at this time. He said Cuomo will bring the "most immediate attention to this." 

Besides a TMDL, the council has also called on the state to help fund engineering studies and subsequent upgrades to the city of Auburn and town of Owasco's water treatment plants. Representatives from the DEC have said they are working to find grant opportunities, both state and federal, and have been working on those since the request was made.

Cuddy said he's concerned because the treatment plants have approximately five months to get ready before the next algae bloom season. He thinks state officials need to take immediate action beyond grant applications.

"Are they going to let this become another Hoosick Falls or Flint, Michigan?" he said. "I guess it's perspective. I want us to be proactive and preventive."

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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.

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