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Officials Reaffirm Commitment to Owasco Lake; Hochul Urged to See Lake 1st Hand


State and local officials, along with environmental experts, were at Auburn’s Emerson Park on Tuesday to reaffirm their commitment to protecting the health of Owasco Lake and its watershed.

State Senator Rachel May represents New York’s 48th Senate District which contains the lake and much of its watershed. She spoke first and said that, while those in attendance were there to support Owasco Lake, these efforts are meant to safeguard all of the Finger Lakes which are each under threat from harmful algal blooms and dangerous runoff.

“We’re here for Owasco Lake,” May said. “We’re also here for the Finger Lakes in general, all of which are under pressure from a changing climate, from increasing harmful algal blooms.”

May added she’s working to bring different state agencies such as the Department of Health, the DEC, and Ag and Markets together to collaborate on solutions for the lake while making them realize how serious a threat this is for those who rely on the lake for drinking water.

Auburn City Councilor Jimmy Giannettino spoke next. He reiterated his mission to see Owasco Lake receive a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – a maximum amount of pollutants allowed to enter a water body so it will meet water quality standards.

In 2016, harmful algal blooms (HABs) nearly prevented the city from serving drinking water. Giannettino said that, while the state provided funding for water treatment so the city could keep serving water, the state has failed to protect the long-term health of the lake.

“The long-term fight, we made it clear at the same time, was the long-term health of Owasco Lake, and that’s where the state has failed us,” Giannettino said.

In front of microphones, cameras, and reporters, Giannettino went on to directly ask Governor Kathy Hochul to come to Auburn for a face-to-face meeting on the lake.

“Our ask at this point in time is for Governor Hochul to come here to meet with us face to face to talk about this issue,” Giannettino continued. “She needs to be brought up to speed on what’s going on. I believe her agencies have not only failed the State of New York but they are failing her as well.”

Eileen O’Connor spent 30 years as the Director of Environmental Health for the Cayuga County Health Department before announcing her retirement earlier this year. Underscoring the urgency of the situation, she said now is a critical time for 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.”

She added that, in recent years, elevated levels of disinfectant byproducts related to the treatment of water for cyanobacteria associated with HABs have been found in areas that receive their drinking water from Owasco Lake While the the city’s new filtration system is keeping toxins out of the lake, it is not known at this time how well the system would stand up to increased HAB outbreaks.

Doctor Adam Effler is the Executive Director of the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council. He spoke on the council’s goals to work on the development of best practices to allow agriculture to continue to thrive while minimizing the damage of phosphorus entering the lake. Citing the fact that the watershed extends beyond the borders of Cayuga County and the state’s 48th Senate District, Effler added that the council can work with individual municipalities to make sure that everyone’s issues are being heard and addressed.

Echoing the urgency of Giannettion and O’Connor, he called the threats to the lake “existential.

State Senator Peter Harckham was the final speaker at the event. Representing the 40th State Senate District, his district covers Westchester and the Hudson Valley, but as Chair of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, he came to Owasco’s shores to let those in the Finger Lakes know that HAB issues are being felt all across the Empire State.

He said that there is a lack of coordinated response from the state on how to help municipalities deal with HABs in their waterways. He added that he wants to push New York to develop a playbook and a toolkit to help municipalities deal with the effects of HABs.

Not only did Harckham praise the efforts of locals to protect Owasco Lake, but added that, if state agencies won’t step in to help, legislative action may be necessary.

“Here you have a community that wants to do something about [HABs] and the state does not have their back. And that’s got to change… if our state agencies don’t [help] then we will have to do that legislatively as we come into session next year.”

Earlier this month, both the Auburn City Council and the Owasco Town Board voted unanimously to pass resolutions asking New York State to adopt a TMDL for the lake – the source of drinking water for 45,000 individuals.





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