Auburn unveils water source protection plan for Owasco Lake | Politics

AUBURN — A city plan to protect Owasco Lake’s water quality is close to being finalized, adding to a number of measures aimed at watershed protection for the water body that supplies drinking water to Auburn and several other municipalities.

Russell Urban-Mead, vice president and hydrogeology department manager for the firm LaBella Associates, presented the water source protection plan at last week’s Auburn City Council. The state announced a program in 2021 to help municipalities develop these plans.

Urban-Mead congratulated the city on securing a technical assistance grant to help form this plan. The state selected LaBella to provide technical services for these plans. The firm is working on eight projects with different communities.

“It is the intent of the state to endorse these plans that communities adopt and if possible, help you fund the implementation,” Urban-Mead continued, adding that the plan is focused on long-term protection for the lake.

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A community advisory group formed for the protection plan development includes Auburn City Councilor Jimmy Giannettino, Director of Municipal Utilities Seth Jensen and Cayuga County Director of Planning and Economic Development Stephen Lynch.

As a part of the plan, it was determined that the overall water source area was the entire lake watershed, consisting of all of the land and land uses in the watershed and subwatersheds of Owasco Lake, Urban-Mead said, saying there are many threats in those areas.

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Urban-mead’s presentation slides said the watershed’s high-priority “critical areas” which need to be resolved quickly if something goes wrong are spots along the lake shoreline and tributary buffers, including roads, developed residential and commercial land, and open space and agricultural areas.

Various protection and implementation methods were developed, such as reducing the amount of nutrients and sediment entering Dutch Hollow and other northern areas that drain directly into the lake, septic systems, invasive species and development in the watershed.

The protection and implementation methods touch on issues such as identifying the possible contaminate source, the objectives that would be addressed, the management and protection approaches that would be used, their level of urgency, implantation timing, how difficult it would be implement these potential methods, the potential cost of each, possible funding sources and possible partnerships.

Urban-Mead said the two pages included in the presentation for the protection and implementation methods for each issue are “the guts of your plan.”

“This is the plan that emerged. A pretty report will put a bow and ribbon on it, but honestly, this is the plan,” he said. “It has a budget, it has a schedule, it has partners, it answers the ‘why’ for each one and it has a suggestion of what the action is.”

The next steps for the plan include reviewing the input from Thursday’s meeting, Urban-Mead said. He said there is also a review by the state for completeness and added, “we’ve already turned one in and what we got back was mostly editorial, ‘spelling this’ and ‘clarification that’ and that’s fine, that’s always helpful.”

The advisory committee will also be asked to review the full draft document that LaBella will be assembling. Guidance for the protection plan doesn’t state that the city has to endorse the plan but “some measure of support from the city council would be, I think, appropriate,” Urban-Mead said.

The plan would then be implemented by a plan management team. Urban-Mead added that he understands that approved plans are more eligible for funding assistance.

Auburn’s protection plan is meant to compliment existing local water quality initiatives, he said, such as a Nine Element Watershed Plan for Owasco Lake, an ongoing effort by some officials to secure a Total Maximum Daily Load program from the state and the proposed Owasco Lake Watershed rules and regulations that were approved by Auburn and Owasco officials in October 2020. The state health department recently outlined a year-long process to assess and potentially make changes to the updated rules.

A difference between the water source protection plan and the other initiatives, Urban-Mead said, is that the other undertakings require input and approval from other agencies. He said the protection plan is “your plan,” where the city puts it together. He added that the protection plan incorporates recommendations from the other initiatives.  

Councilor Terry Cuddy said he was impressed by the amount of work the advisory committee has done for the plan. He also noted that the Auburn and Cayuga County governments have been working with different organizations on water initiatives such as the Nine Element plan and the watershed rules and regulations.

“I just want to say that one of the things that has been a reoccurring concern of mine is that when we as a community develop partnerships, educate ourselves, work in good faith, (include) local expertise, everything that we have done, and we submit our requests, I just find that sometimes these earnest requests have fallen on either deaf ears or some resistance from state agencies,” Cuddy said.

He said there is a lot of value in the work done on the protection plan, but he also mentioned the years-long processes involved in efforts such as the rules and regulations and the Nine Element Plan.

“I think what (the protection plan) does is this lays out all of the elements in one document and the committee has done a great job in putting this together. My concern is that … there’s going to be more stalls … we’re waiting too long. We’ve already put forth viable means to help protect our water quality and we get keep getting road blocks and I don’t think we can afford to wait. We need help from the state immediately. We have given them options to move forward.”

Giannettino said he initially had a lot of the concerns Cuddy had just mentioned and he was worried the plan would deviate from the public process Auburn had already been working on, but the process alleviated some of his concerns.

“Everybody was willing to allow the city’s initiative for (a Total Maximum Daily Load) to be included in what the action plan was. I didn’t want this to overshadow that,” Giannettino said.

He said he appreciates that the protective plan identifies priority issues, protection methods, the costs and the potential financial sources for those methods. Giannettino added that being on the committee was a “very positive experience overall, and I appreciate all the hard work and that you and your team put in.”

Urban-Mead later acknowledged Cuddy’s concerns.

“I hate to see a plan go nowhere, and so I would hope that there is energy and momentum, notwithstanding the frustration that the state should do something, I’m hoping that there would be momentum to implement the things that you can implement on this plan.”

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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