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Auburn-area coalition asks NY for strict Owasco Lake watershed enforcement


AUBURN — Walter Hang has seen this before.

As president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database firm in Ithaca, Hang has observed how the state has handled the development of harmful algal blooms on waterbodies, including Cayuga and Owasco lakes. With the problem worsening over the years, he thinks the state must do more to combat the growth of the troublesome blooms.

A coalition of Auburn-area activists and leaders held a press conference Thursday to urge the state to impose strict regulations that would protect Owasco Lake and the drinking water supply. The lake provides drinking water to the city and surrounding towns.

The attendees included Auburn Mayor Michael Quill and two city councilors, Terry Cuddy and Jimmy Giannettino. Giannettino, a Democrat, is running to succeed Quill as mayor this year.

Giannettino detailed the timeline of when toxins first entered the drinking water supply in 2016 and the state's response, which included $2 million in funding for treatment systems. He praised the state for that action, but added that a long-term solution is needed.

Local leaders believed that updated Owasco Lake watershed rules and regulations were the answer — the existing regulations have been in place since 1984. After a three-year process, the city of Auburn and town of Owasco approved the new rules and submitted them to the state for review in 2020. When the state Department of Health finally responded with its revisions this year, local officials were outraged. They believe the state's changes fell short of what's needed to combat the algal blooms and protect the drinking water.

Two weeks ago, Auburn and Owasco passed resolutions asking the state to set a total maximum daily load for Owasco Lake. A total maximum daily load is a plan to control pollutants entering a waterbody.

The request for a TMDL is not new, according to Giannettino.

"Since 2016, the state of New York has told us ... you don't need a TMDL," he said. "We have kept up that fight."

With no indication from the state that it supports stronger regulations, Auburn-area officials have used press events to put pressure on Gov. Kathy Hochul's administration. Earlier this week, state Sen. Rachel May joined local officials for a press conference at Emerson Park in Owasco. May, who represents Cayuga County, criticized the state's response to the watershed rule changes.

At that event, Giannettino invited Hochul to visit the Auburn area and meet with local leaders to discuss Owasco Lake water quality.

For Hang, what's happening with Owasco Lake is similar to what he has seen elsewhere. He showed photos of harmful algal blooms in Cayuga Lake and displayed a map showing the presence of blooms in many state waterbodies.

"The facts speak for themselves," he said. "(The state is) not addressing this problem because they won't enforce the law."

The state Department of Health has previously highlighted its efforts to protect Owasco Lake, including its revisions to the watershed rules and more than $9 million for water quality projects. The state also approved the Nine Element Plan for the watershed in 2022, which will open up more state funding.

Toxics Targeting's Walter Hang points to a photo of an algal bloom in Cayuga Lake during a press conference at Memorial City Hall in Auburn Thursday.
Robert Harding