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Blue-green algae

Blue-green algae has taken over the water near an Owasco Lake shoreline.

In a way that no one hoped to ever see, the past week has brought Owasco Lake water quality issues into sharp focus.

Significant blue-green algae blooms this year have gone beyond the stage of being a major impediment to recreational use of the lake. Now the toxins associated with this type of algae have found their way into the public drinking water system.

Over the last eight days, officials have reported multiple cases of treated water testing positive for algae toxins. Fortunately, the levels of those toxins have remained below the federal thresholds for being considered a health threat, and therefore public officials have not advised that anyone stop using the public water that flows through their taps.

The scary part, though, is that there's much that is unknown about blue-green algae. Water treatment facilities are not designed to combat it, but operators for the Auburn and Owasco plants are using all the best practices at their disposal, which have been enough to keep the water toxins below critical levels.

Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that will continue, especially if future blooms become even more intense.

With that in mind, it's vital that no expense is spared on the local, state and federal level to get this threat under control, not just this fall but also for the long-term.

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That means investments in scientific research and development for figuring out what it will take to make treatment facilities more effective at dealing with this threat. And then following through with funding to implement the changes needed.

The same goes for practices and regulations associated with watershed protection. And that likely will mean some dramatic changes for farming and land maintenance, residential and commercial development and even recreational use of the lake. We don't know exactly why blooms happen when they do, but the excess nutrient loading from runoff from farms, golf courses, home lawns and ineffective sewage treatment systems all create an environment that allows algae to thrive.

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There are models out there to study and potentially mimic. The Skaneateles Lake watershed restrictions for protecting public water systems in Onondaga County are an example, as is the Catskill region watershed for the system of massive reservoirs that supply New York City water.

To get to the place where those watersheds are will take substantial financial investment. But it will also require unprecedented political will to adopt and implement laws and regulations that are certain to be unpopular with some powerful groups that resist environmental restrictions and want to maintain the status quo.

But the alternative could be a broken public water system. And the price to pay for that would be much higher than any investment taken to protect this natural resource.

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