Owasco Lake briefing

Bob Brower, president of the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, shows how $600,000 from the state will be used for watershed projects and monitoring at Owasco Town Hall on Monday.

OWASCO — State representatives met at the Owasco Town Hall Monday afternoon to learn where the $600,000 allocated to Owasco Lake watershed projects is going, and what can be done next. 

The announcement that the funds had been released came last week, and was great news for Bob Brower, president of the Owasco Watershed Lake Association. While Brower had been helping direct a blue-green algae bloom surveillance program, the Cayuga County Health Department was testing both untreated and treated water samples for blue-green algae toxins, with treated water samples testing positive on a sporadic basis over three weeks between September and October. It was the first time in New York state that toxins had been detected in the drinking water, though below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's levels of concern.

While the funds were already allocated in last year's legislative budget, Brower showed state Sens. James Seward and John DeFrancisco and Assemblymen Gary Finch and Bob Oaks where some of the money had already been spent and where new projects would pick up.

When state officials asked what was causing the increase in the frequency of harmful algal blooms and their intensity, the answer was largely unknown. But David Matthews, a research scientist with the Upstate Freshwater Institute, said the answer to reducing those blooms has always been clear — reducing nutrient loading, specifically, phosphorous. 

But what has mystified the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is that according to the state's Nutrient Standards Plan, its guidance level for the amount of phosphorous is higher than what Owasco Lake has measured over the past couple of years. Because of the seemingly low phosphorous levels, Cayuga County officials had to advocate for Owasco Lake to be on the DEC's list of impaired water bodies, citing the number of harmful algal blooms.

Matthews said he believes the state needs to rethink its guidance level for Owasco Lake, and maybe its guideline of 20 micrograms per liter of phosphorous overall. He's not sure what Owasco Lake's phosphorous threshold is, but, he said, reducing phosphorous is the only answer to reducing the blooms.

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Brower said $386,000 of the state funds is going toward specific watershed restoration projects, which would reduce nutrient loading. Sampling and monitoring of the watershed takes up the second largest chunk at about $109,000. Project management is expected to cost about $85,000, with the remainder of the budget, about $20,000 focused on stakeholder communications and administration. Brower said that some of the projects, such as two buoys which measure data collected from the lake, had already been paid for by Owasco Watershed Lake Association members with faith that the state funds would come through.

Brower also showed who the Owasco Watershed Management Council has contracted with for this work. The Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District will be the primary contractor, expecting to complete more than $360,000 worth of projects in the watershed. Brower said they planned to focus work on Van Ness and Sucker brooks, which are closer to the city of Auburn and the town of Owasco's water treatment plant intake pipes. 

Doug Kierst, executive director of the district, did not have projects yet slated for the funds, but said his team would compile a list and tackle the best ones first. He said while the funds would go a long way, "realistically," he said, "it's a good-sized watershed. We'll see how we go with the funding."

Finch asked Kierst for a wish list, and how much it would cost. Hesitant to give a number, Kierst said it would cost millions to do everything the district wanted to do. That added to another financial request from those in the audience — many who were city, town and county officials. 

Seth Jensen, director of Municipal Utilities for the city of Auburn, said both treatment plants have requested $75,000 each from the state to fund an engineering study. From those studies, Jensen said they hope to decide what modifications can be made so that no blue-green algae toxins are detected in the drinking water next year. So far, options that have been discussed include increasing the amount of powder activated carbon used, or extend the intake pipes further out into the lake.

"We will be looking for other ways that the state can be of assistance to solving this problem, of course financially, but in other ways as well," Seward said. 

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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.