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OWASCO — Though raindrops pelted on Michele and Mark Plis' boat Tuesday morning, Owasco Lake looked a picturesque watercolor scene of dark grays and greens. The only waves came from fog billowing across the hillside, both revealing and hiding the landscape as the volunteers made their way about eight miles south.

The Plises are one of two sets of volunteers on Owasco Lake, collecting data and water samples through the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program (CSLAP). The program has expanded to all 11 Finger Lakes this year, and the DEC checked on Owasco Lake Tuesday, conducting an audit on the Plis' work.

For Mark and Michele, however, the research appeared second nature. That may be partially because both worked for three decades in the pharmaceutical industry, using test tubes and following various scientific procedures. Both now retired, Michele said she and her husband volunteer with CSLAP and with a harmful algal bloom monitoring program run by the Owasco Watershed Lake Association.

"We've lived on the lake for a number of years, and we're concerned about the health of the lake," she said. "This DEC program, it's kind of right up our alley, and we have the time."

It was the last lake of four that Tony Prestigiacomo was slated to audit the water quality testing on this season. A research scientist with the DEC's Finger Lakes Water Hub, Prestigiacomo also worked with volunteers on Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua lakes, watching them collect their water samples, temperature and turbidity data, among other things. Prestigiacomo collected his own data alongside the Plises Tuesday and things were matching up well.

One test with near instantaneous results is a Secchi disk test. A black and white circular plate is lowered into the water and volunteers can determine the lake's turbidity, or how cloudy the water is. 

"This is probably the clearest I've ever seen," Mark said.

Prestigiacomo conducted the same test and agreed the lake was very clear.

After returning from their rainy expedition, the Plises set up a temporary laboratory on their kitchen table. With bottles labeled for each water quality aspect that will be tested — such as pH, total Phosphorous, and total Nitrogen, to name a few — they divvied up samples that will be sent to labs for analysis. Prestigiacomo said that data will be reviewed and compiled toward the end of the year.

Though harmful algal blooms are on the minds of many this summer, the data analysis is meant to focus on a broader picture of the lake's health. Still, HAB testing is part of the program, though Michele said they have not seen any this summer in their coverage area. 

Overall, the effort helps educate the public about their resident lake, and makes certified data available for water quality management plans, according to the DEC's website. Owasco Lake is currently in the process of getting a Nine Elements Plan, a water quality mapping program and tool to help identify where the lake's pollution sources are and how to limit them. 

In the meantime, Prestigiacomo said CSLAP has received a second year of funding, and he expects to audit the volunteers covering the northern end of the lake next summer.

"It's an impressive amount of work that gets done," he 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.

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