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Local officials continue to disagree on best pollution solution for Owasco Lake


President of Toxics Targeting Walter Hang speaks at a Save Owasco Now! meeting Monday night.
Gwendolyn Craig - The Citizen

AURELIUS — Owasco Lake's harmful algal blooms — which may be a thick lime-green one day, or a wispy sheen of feathers another — have sounded the alarm for an increasingly prevalent menace across the Finger Lakes and New York state. Local and state officials disagree on how best to tackle the problem, but all are united in that something must be done.

One group, Save Owasco Now!, met Monday night for an emergency meeting at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES to continue its call for a special pollution diet called a Total Maximum Daily Load. But another diet is already in the works — a Nine Element Watershed Plan, often called a 9E Plan. Many Cayuga County and state officials believe that plan is better suited for the watershed.

"They're (Save Owasco Now!) doing what they want to do, and I applaud them," said Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner, who chairs the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council, in a phone interview. The council is one of the entities overseeing the 9E Plan.

"Everybody's got the best interest of the lake at heart, and there's different approaches to get there," he added. "I'm siding with the county and the state Department of Environmental Conservation."

Though both plans aim to reduce pollution in a water body, officials will argue over the benefits and pitfalls of both. Those wanting a TMDL argue that because it's overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requires a public hearing, and puts enforceable regulations on polluters, the plan is more powerful. Those in support of the county's current 9E Plan believe there is more public participation built into the process, is better suited for pollution that does not have an obvious source (such as runoff), and is created by local officials more in tune with what's happening in the watershed with final approval by the DEC.

Auburn City Councilor Terry Cuddy and President of Toxics Targeting Walter Hang, believe that the 9E Plan isn't enough, and Owasco Lake must be transferred from a waiting list to the state's list of impaired water bodies due to the prevalence of harmful algae. That way, Hang told audience members Monday night, the lake will be required to have a TMDL.

"They're (state officials) just putting you into the deep freeze because they're not doing any investigation of your lake," Hang told the audience. He later referred to the 9E Plan as "death, in my view."

"There's no programs to solve these problems," he added. "It's a political problem and political solution."

Cuddy said while he was grateful for the state's assistance in putting a stop-gap measure in place with the algal toxin treatment systems for the city of Auburn and town of Owasco, now the issue of the lake has to be tackled. Cuddy added that since the algal toxins have affected the water in Skaneateles Lake, people are realizing this is not an isolated issue.

Auburn City Councilor Debby McCormick, who is also on the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council, said prior to the meeting that she's witnessed all the research going on around Owasco Lake for the 9E Plan. She alluded to the same thing Hang mentioned during the meeting, how it has taken Cayuga Lake more than a decade to get a TMDL.

"We're going to be done probably in four or five years," she said of the 9E Plan. "It just seems to make sense, and we've got all these partnerships with all the people. It's just working out really well."

But Hang is calling on state officials to quicken Owasco Lake's TMDL to two years, through a petition letter on his website. He's also requesting more enforcement of the law, and an overhaul of how the state handles these processes. With more than 200 state water bodies on the impaired water bodies list waiting for pollution reductions, more needs to be done, he said.

"What you need and what we need is to figure out where all the pollution in the watershed originates so it can be cleaned up," Hang said. "It's as simple as that."

In the meantime, toxins were detected for the first time this season in the lake water entering the town of Owasco's treatment plant. The Cayuga County Health Department reported samples collected Friday showed toxin levels at 0.17 micrograms per liter, and no toxins detected in the drinking water. Auburn's water showed no toxins in the raw or drinking water.

The Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program, too, had toxin results from a bloom sample taken just south of Lindenwood Cove on Sept. 25. Toxins levels were about 317 micrograms per liter, nearly 16 times the DEC's threshold for a toxic bloom.