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State urged to step up toxic algae fight


ALBANY — The state needs to do more to combat outbreaks of harmful aquatic algae that can pose a threat to drinking water supplies, according to an Ithaca-based environmental advocate.

Walter Hang, owner of Toxics Targeting, said a $65 million program announced last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is "woefully inadquate" in a state that has more than 100 waterbodies impaired under the federal Clean Water Act by high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen.

Those chemicals are plant fertlizers that once in water can help fuel blooms of toxic cyanobacteria, a species of algae that is harmful if ingested.

Such an outbreak forced the temporary closure of the beach at Moreau State Park earlier this month.

Hang said algal blooms this year at Skaneatteles Lake, which supplies drinking water to Syracuse, and the Croton Falls Reservoir, which is part of New York City's drinking water supply, underscore the problem.

Water treatment systems were built in 2016 in Cayuga County to eliminate algae levels in Cayuga Lake that had become potentially harmful. In August 2017, a cyanobacteria outbreak shut down public bathing at Taughannock State Park and threatened drinking water for thousands of residents.

"Until regulatory controls are mandated to require comprehensive watershed cleanups with strict deadlines, New York's harmful algal bloom crisis will only grow worse," Hang said.

Statewide, reports of algal outbreaks have been rising in recent years. In 2017, there were 168 reports, according to DEC figures. That compares to 174 in 2016, 136 in 2015, 93 in 2014, 76 in 2013 and 57 in 2012. So far this year, there have been 95 incidents reported.

Under the governor's plan, the state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation along with scientists from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry met to plan how to attack the problem.

A high-ranking DEC staffer said the state has been making strides and called Hang's announcement "alarmist and irresponsible."

Julie Tighe, DEC chief of staff, said since the governor announced the plan in December, the state has identified 12 waterbodies to be addressed, including parts of Lake George, Lake Champlain near Port Henry and Isle La Motte, and five reservoirs that provide drinking water to Middletown in the Catskills,

Grants to fund programs will be awarded in the fall, said Tighe. "We have a lot of grant programs to protect drinking water that are available, and will continue to be available."

The leader of the city of Auburn praised a $2 million state grant to treat the drinking water supply in Owasco Lake to remove algal toxins.

Calling Cuomo's support "the game changer," Mayor Andrew Quill said the city had the infrastructure in place to treat the drinking water supply within a year after confronting the blooms.

Hang said the state also should consider tracking spills of farm manure, another source of phosphorus that can help fuel outbreaks.

Currently, there are no mandatory reporting requirements on farms for manure spills, with the state DEC recording only incidences that are called in by the public.

Hang said a system similar to that for petroleum spills, which must be reported to DEC within two hours, is needed. He said DEC records now contain more than 200 cases of "massive" manure spills across the state, each involving thousands of gallons.

About 15 of those spills were in the Capital Region, including Columbia, Greene, Warren and Washington counties.

"We have nothing against farmers — we want farmers to get help to do the right thing," said Hang.

New York state also has its own program to reduce manure and fertilizers that get into streams, according to DEC. Called the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Abatement and Control Program, the state has spent $80 million since 2011. The project is funded through the state Environmental Protection Fund.