Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.
Water tests reveal efforts to reduce industrial pollution in Cayuga Lake have been successful, but chemical runoff from lawns, roads and other non-industrial sources remains challenging to reduce, Jose Lozano, lab director of the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility, said.
Dan Ramer, chief operator of the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility, said the limit on the amount of phosphorus the facility can release is currently 40 pounds per day, and the facility only releases seven pounds per day. After equipment upgrades in 2006, the facility is now responsible for only 10 percent of Cayuga Lake’s phosphorus content, which since then has reduced by 40 percent overall.
Community scientists are lending their skills to study phosphorus and other chemical pollutants in locations that are more challenging to monitor to help their counties prevent potential environmental crises, said David Weinstein, president of the board of directors of the Community Science Institute.
In about three years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will issue a new Total Daily Maximum Limit on how much phosphorus industrial sources can release, Ramer said.
Lozano said phosphorus does not pose a serious danger right now, but more prevention methods, such as drainage ditches and buffers around farms, should be installed to save money later on.
“Phosphorus is not the only problem,” he said. “But we have to understand that if you want to stop … all that phosphorus, we have to be prepared to spend a fortune, and I mean millions.”
Weinstein said the DEC’s data collection is sophisticated, but only data for one year, 2013, has been collected so far.
“They have a very detailed data set for that year … but they will have to determine if that year is typical, and that’s why they’re using the CSI data set,” he said.
To provide more thorough data, experts from the institute and volunteers have been testing the lake and its tributaries since 2000 to calculate how much phosphorus comes from farms, lawns, roads or stream beds, Weinstein said.
County governments use the data that community scientists collect to simulate solutions for potential pollution threats, Sharon Anderson, environment team leader of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, said.
“We’ll start to have discussions about what might make a difference, and then in if so, who’s going to pay for it and who’s going to enforce it,” Anderson said.
Ramer said the DEC is focusing on South End because most of the phosphorus is trapped in silt in the South End of the lake, preventing an algae bloom that would render water unsafe for drinking or swimming.
The institute’s data reveals phosphorus levels throughout Cayuga Lake have been and still are below 20 micrograms per liter, which is the threshold of when algae blooms become a threat. Because of the community’s involvement, counties around Cayuga Lake have seen a massive improvement in environmental health, he said.
“If you know that something is happening locally, the community can be active to try to correct the problem,” Weinstein said. “We don’t have to be just waiting for the state to come in and tell us what’s the problem and fix it for us.”