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Auburn, Owasco, & OWLA Suing State Over Owasco Lake


Auburn, Owasco, and the Owasco Watershed Lake Association (OWLA) are suing New York State over rules and regulations for Owasco Lake’s watershed.

The Citizen reports the suit was filed Friday in Cayuga County Court and claims the state’s Department of Health (DOH) violated residents’ constitutional rights under the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution and was wrong to deny the city and town’s request for nutrient management regulations.

This action comes after years of efforts by elected officials and environmental groups pushing for a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and an update to the lake’s current rules and regulations, something that hasn’t been updated since 1984. The TMDL would create a maximum amount of pollutants allowed to enter the lake so it will meet water quality standards. This is hoped to help reduce the occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms in the lake.

In 2017, local stakeholders began drafting updates to the Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations. In 2020, both Auburn and Owasco voted in favor of the draft resolution; however, the DOH has yet to adopt it.

In October of 2023, Auburn Mayor Mike Quill and Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner expressed their profound disappointment about the situation in a letter to Governor Kathy Hochul demanding action to protect the source of drinking water for 45,000 people.  A month before the letter, both municipalities had passed resolutions requesting New York fund and implement a TMDL for Owasco Lake.

The prior month, the Cayuga County Board of Health sent a letter to the governor urging the state to use the updated rules and regulations approved by Auburn and Owasco in 2020. The board called a revised version of the rules and regulations proposed by the state “little more than window dressing.”

In May of 2023, Seth Jensen, Auburn’s Director of Municipal Utilities, told City Council the DOH had cancelled two meetings with city staff to discuss rules and regulations for the watershed, canceling one with under 24 hours notice. These cancellations came after both Auburn and Owasco agreed to use Earthjustice as legal counsel in their efforts to update the rules and regulations.

Auburn Corporation Counsel Nate Garland added, “one might draw a logical inference from the fact that they cancelled the meeting after they learned that Earthjustice was on the case for us. That’s my opinion, that that was the motivating factor.”

Elected officials and environmental activists held a press conference at Emerson Park, overlooking the lake, last September. There they renewed their commitment to protecting the lake and its watershed. One of the speakers at the conference was State Senator Peter Harckham, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Conservation. He said that legislative action may be necessary to compel the state to help protect the lake.

“Owasco Lake and the residents who rely on this lake for their drinking water are facing a critical moment and we will all be judged in the future on how we respond to this moment,” said Harckham.

The back and forth between locals and the state hasn’t gone unnoticed by federal representatives. That same month, Congresswoman Claudia Tenney told FLX Morning that her office is aware of and looking into Auburn and Owasco’s efforts for a TMDL.

Jimmy Giannettino, Auburn’s current mayor and former city councilor, has been an outspoken advocate for the lake and its watershed, going so far as to say the state has failed the people of Auburn.

“I feel that ultimately New York State has failed us, and by us I mean the people of Auburn,” Giannettino said when he was a city councilor.

He has also urged residents of the other ten Finger Lakes to pay attention to the pushback Auburn and Owasco have received from the state.

“I think [communities across the Finger Lakes] should be paying attention, not only because they’re experiencing harmful algal blooms in their lakes, but what were doing with the rules and regulations. If they are passed as we’ve sent them to Albany, we feel that they will become the model for the rest of New York State and possibly for the United States,” Giannettino told Finger Lakes News Radio.


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