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Harmful algal bloom warning signs may come to Owasco Lake next year


An algae bloom off the Emerson Park pier in Owasco Lake Saturday afternoon.
Gwendolyn Craig - The Citizen

Julie Lockhart volunteers with the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, scouting the shoreline of Owasco Lake for harmful algal blooms. On Sept. 18, one of the worst blooms so far this year hugged the shore of Emerson Park, and Lockhart said it floated out into the water as far as her eyes could see.

The lime-green goo didn't keep a little boy from wading into the water, tracking his remote control boat, she said. It didn't keep a pair of kayakers from skimming atop the surface, and it didn't keep a couple of young women and their children from preparing to wade into Owasco Lake.

"They didn't see it," Lockhart said at a Save Owasco Now! meeting Monday night. "They didn't know what it was. There's no signage. There's no warnings."

President of Toxics Targeting Walter Hang slammed health department officials Monday night, calling it a "travesty of justice," that signs have not been posted.

But state and local health agencies said it's not as easy as it sounds to post signs.

For one thing, blooms are temporary and the season is relatively short. In a joint statement to The Citizen Tuesday, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Environmental Conservation said shutting down a lake based on one bloom in one area would impugn the whole lake.

Currently, the DEC updates its harmful algal bloom notifications web page if there is a bloom, and then works with beach operators or county health departments on signs if necessary.

Cayuga County Health Department Director Kathleen Cuddy said the department is considering signs for its messaging strategy next year, but would not be posting any this year. She said it's important to identify the right wording.

"We have to be careful about the language we use," Cuddy said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I think people are sometimes not aware because they're looking for one method of information, and they're not aware of the other methods we utilize. We will do the best we can from a public entity point of view. We are open, and we certainly have heard people's concerns, but we do look to our community advocates to share information."

The health department has taken multiple steps to educate the public about blooms through pamphlets, press releases, updates on social media, updates to its website and mailed postcards. DOH and DEC added that its general response is for people to stay out of the lake if they see green.

"Harmful algal bloom education and notification is an ongoing collaboration between the New York State Department of Health, NYS Office of Parks and Historic Preservation and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and includes notification through DEC's online HABs notification page and archive, messaging for public water systems, and signage templates for beaches and recreational areas upon request," the statement to The Citizen read. "This joint effort is part of the state's overall HABs response program and messaging and materials are updated continuously to address current impacted areas."