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Save Owasco Now group calls on state and federal government for more help


Walter Hang, from Toxics Targeting in Ithaca, speaks during the Save Owasco Now community forum on Monday on Owasco Lake and safe drinking water. (Photo: Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen)

AURELIUS — Founding members of the Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance have come together again, but this time under a new name with a new cause. Called Save Owasco Now, the group spearheaded by Auburn City Councilor Terry Cuddy, gathered for its first public meeting Monday night to discuss action items for combating blue-green algae toxins in Owasco Lake, the drinking source for more than 45,000 Cayuga County residents.

More than 40 people attended the meeting at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, which focused on the discovery of microcystin, a toxin that can be produced by blue-green algae, in the treated drinking water toward the end of September and into October. The toxin was not detected at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory guideline levels, but it was the first time in New York state that toxins had made it past the filtration systems of a plant.

"I'd like to think of us as a SWAT team," said Patty Beer, one of the founding members of the group. "We're dealing with a kind of unknown situation. We're kind of the canary in the mine."

Cuddy said the main things he hopes the group will accomplish in the next eight to nine months are to improve the water treatment plants to make sure toxins are not detectable in the drinking water next year, keep Owasco Lake on the state Department of Environmental Conservation and EPA's list of impaired water bodies, implement a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), continue to keep waterfowl from Owasco Lake, and comment on the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permits, which are in review by the DEC.

The city of Auburn has already begun working with an engineer for ways to make the treatment plant more successful in ridding the finished water of toxins. Cuddy said the city began that work without the help of state funding, something he hopes will come down the line.

For addressing the longer-term issue, Cuddy said he hopes the state will implement a TMDL, which is the maximum amount of a pollutant a water body can receive while adhering to the U.S. Clean Water Act, on whatever source of pollution it thinks is proliferating the harmful algal blooms on Owasco Lake. Meanwhile Cayuga County officials are going forward with a Nine Element Watershed Plan, which Cuddy said he hopes will supplement the TMDL.

The guest speaker was Walter Hang from Toxics Targeting, an environmental database service in Ithaca. A few years ago, Hang worked on a phosphorous loading problem at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. Cornell University's Lake Source Cooling process to to use cold water from the bottom of the lake to cool rooms on campus was stirring up phosphorous and causing widespread algae blooms.

Hang told the group that reducing phosphorous is the answer for Owasco Lake, despite nutrient levels being below the DEC's threshold of 20 micrograms per liter. He said because Owasco Lake is a drinking source, there really should be no excessive phosphorous in the lake.

"These lakes have not received the attention they deserve," Hang said. "If this problem were on Long Island, it would probably be a different story.

"You've got to do everything you can now," he added, referencing that the colder months are when algae dies off and the toxin problem is not as acute. "Strike while the iron is hot."

Save Owasco Now plans to meet again on Dec. 12 with a meeting time and place to be determined.

Watch the video shown at Save Owasco Now's meeting, "Owasco Lake: A Tipping Point-The Water Crisis of 2016.