07.31.17

SCHUMER: THE OWASCO FLATS WETLAND RESTORATION PROJECT – WHICH WILL REDUCE DANGEROUS TOXINS IN OWASCO LAKE, THE COUNTY’S LARGEST SOURCE OF DRINKING WATER – HAS BEEN HELD UP BY RED-TAPE FOR OVER 6 YEARS; SENATOR SAYS U.S. ARMY CORPS MUST IMMEDIATELY ISSUE PERMIT SO PROJECT CAN FINALLY BEGIN

In Recent Years, Cayuga County Found Detectable Levels Of Toxins In Auburn and Owasco Treated Water Drawn From Algae-Plagued Owasco Lake; Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration Is One Tool Officials Will Use To Beat Back Algae Blooms And Protect Drinking Water 

Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration Project – Which Is Imperative To Reducing The Sediment and Nutrient Run-Off That Causes Algae Blooms in Owasco Lake – Was Funded By NYS In 2011, But Has Been Held Up By State and Federal Permitting Processes 

Schumer To Army Corps of Engineers: Immediately Permit County’s Plan To Protect Drinking Water

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer today called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to swiftly issue federal wetland permits so that local officials can begin the critical Owasco Flats Wetlands Restoration project designed to fight back against toxic algae-blooms plaguing Owasco Lake. Schumer said the Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration will reduce the toxins in the lake by filtering the unwanted nutrients and sediment that cause the harmful algae blooms through dug basins and vegetation before the water enters the lake, while also working to restore floodplains to lessen damage from heavy rains. Schumer said the proposed project has already been approved and funded by the state, and that the USACE permit approval is all that is needed for the project to commence. Schumer called on the feds to immediately greenlight the permit so that local officials can continue their work to protect the county’s largest source of drinking water, Owasco Lake.

“After the detection of algae toxins in drinking water last fall, state and local officials have been diligently working on solutions to deal with water problems that have plagued Owasco Lake. One of those solutions is the Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration project, but officials cannot implement the plan until it receives sign-off from the feds,” said Senator Schumer. “We know the project can limit sediment plumes from entering Owasco Lake, and Phase I has been already been approved and funded by the state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must immediately issue necessary permits - and not wait months or even a single week - so that local officials can begin this long-awaited project.”

The Owasco Flats Restoration Project has long been identified as a key tool to reduce phosphorus and sediment loads running into Owasco Lake, thereby reducing the likelihood of harmful algae toxins seeping into drinking water. The State Environmental Facilities Corporation awarded the county $712,000 for Phase I of the project back in 2011.  However the project has been held up since then by state and federal permitting processes. With the State Department of Environmental Conservation issuing their permits earlier this month, the last step is for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to issue a federal wetland permit and an environmental assessment. Schumer said that this must be done without delay because as each day goes by, unwanted nutrient and sediment runoff will continue to enter the lake unfettered.

The Owasco Flats floodplain wetlands were separated from the Owasco Inlet in 1948 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to widen and straighten the Inlet channel. As a result, the Owasco Flats’ wetlands no longer filter floodwaters before they enter Owasco Lake to the extent that they would under more natural conditions, thereby increasing sediment and nutrient loads and impairing the water quality of the lake. According to county officials, the restoration project would collect water and sediment in dug basins, filtering the water through vegetation before it flows out into the lake. The sediment that gets collected will be used to create hummocks, diversifying the habitat in the wetlands. Excess sediment will be carried offsite and likely used as nutrient-rich topsoil. Schumer also added that the project could help lessen damage from flooding. The southern part of Cayuga County was hit with record-breaking rains this summer, which caused nearly $4 million dollars in damage, according to reports. County planning officials have said that the topsoil collected via the restoration project may have been useful to the towns and villages as they recover from the multiple flash floods.

Owasco Lake’s blue-green algae blooms originate from unwanted sediment entering the lake at the Owasco Inlet and the blooms have increasingly plagued the lake during late summer months. Last fall, local officials detected toxins in the treated drinking water in Auburn and Owasco, which is drawn from Owasco Lake, at levels as high as 0.18 micrograms. While those values are below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 0.3 micrograms, state and local officials stepped up their efforts to protect the lake, which is the county’s largest source of drinking water. Schumer said that officials agree that the Owasco Flats Restoration project is imperative to reducing sediment run-off and nutrient loading of Owasco Lake, which are the primary drivers of these harmful algae blooms.

Schumer was joined by Cayuga County officials and leaders.

A copy of Schumer’s letter to the Army Corps of Engineers appears below:

Dear Acting Secretary Doug Lamont:

I write to iterate my support for the Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration project. As you know, Owasco Lake – a source of local drinking water for several municipalities in Cayuga County, including for the City of Auburn, NY – has been plagued by harmful algae toxins in recent years. This project will reduce the toxins in the lake by filtering the unwanted nutrients and sediment that cause the harmful algae blooms through dug basins and vegetation before the water enters the lake, while also working to restore floodplains to lessen damage from heavy rains. It is my hope that you will swiftly issue the federal wetland permit so that state and local officials may proceed to implement the project.

Owasco Lake’s blue-green algae blooms originate from unwanted sediment entering the lake at the Owasco Inlet and the blooms have increasingly plagued the lake during late summer months. Toxins released from the dying blue-green blooms have been found contaminating the treated drinking water drawn from the lake.  Last year, the toxin was found in the drinking water at levels as high as 1,800 micrograms per liter. While that amount is less than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory levels, it has rightfully caused great concern for Cayuga County residents who rely on the lake for its drinking water. State and local officials have identified ways to combat this problem and they include commencing the Owasco Flats Restoration Project.   

Located at the south end of the lake, Owasco Flats consists of approximately 2,800 acres of wetland around the Owasco Inlet. In addition, the Owasco Inlet was hydrologically separated from the Owasco Flats floodplain wetlands when the Inlet channel was widened and straightened as part of a 1948 Army Corps of Engineers Flood Control Project. As a result, the Flats’ wetlands no longer filter floodwaters before they enter Owasco Lake to the extent that they would under more natural conditions, thereby increasing sediment and nutrient loads and impairing the water quality of the lake. The overall objective of restoration efforts is to reduce phosphorus and sediment loads to Owasco Lake. It will also restore floodplain wetlands to better protect surrounding areas form flooding during heavy rains.

Thank you for your consideration of this important project and issuing the federal wetland permit so the project may proceed to implementation. The Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration project, along with other remediation measures taken by Cayuga County and the City of Auburn, will ensure the residents in this area have access to safe drinking water throughout the year. Should you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

 

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer

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