Canandaigua Lake water treatment plants prove adept at keeping out toxins

[USA] The unprecedented algae bloom on Canandaigua Lake that closed beaches over Labor Day and had officials warning people to stay away from the green, toxin-releasing goo is not going away.

“It is like dandelions,” said Greg Boyer, director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium and a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The seeds are there, and when conditions are right, the algae will grow, said Boyer, one of the experts called on during the bloom that marked a first for Canandaigua Lake, deemed one of the cleanest of the 11 Finger Lakes. Boyer and other experts brought in for a Oct. 20 presentation in Canandaigua to shed light on the problem stressed that no one factor is responsible. It is a combination of Mother Nature and human activity.

In avoiding health risks from harmful algae blooms, closed beaches are one thing. The slimy substance that can make you sick if you come in contact with it is pretty easy to spot.

But when it comes to drinking water, control is in the hands of officials and the work of local local water treatment plants. About 70,000 people in 14 different communities stretching from Bristol to Newark, Canandaigua to Potter and beyond, rely on Canandaigua Lake as a drinking water source.

Holy Toledo!

Toledo, Ohio, sits on the edge of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest surface source of fresh water. Algae blooms, which have been accelerating in waterways nationwide, raised more havoc than most on this city’s water system, which last summer shut down for two days. Algae blooms in Lake Erie, fed by agriculture runoff and overflowing sewer pipes, had become so toxic that the city had no choice but to temporarily turn off the system while it faced spending millions of dollars to fix the problem.

Could such a crisis happen in Canandaigua and neighboring communities relying on the lake for drinking water? Yes, agriculture runoff is an issue in the Canandaigua watershed. Yes, aging and broken septic systems are another problem.

Development around the lake and the impact of Mother Nature, with more frequent intense storms and gradually rising temperatures over time due to climate change, are all worries. But in the Canandaigua watershed, aggressive efforts to rein in runoff, as well as effective controls at local treatment plants and tight monitoring, are reasons not to panic, experts say.

When suspicions arose this summer of toxic-releasing algae, the New York State Department of Health did multiple tests of both raw and treated water. Nick Rich with the state Department of Health said the city of Canandaigua Water Treatment Plant on West Lake Road showed low levels of the toxin in raw water and no levels in its treated water.

“It tells us the water treatment process is doing its job,” Rich said.

None of the other treatment plants tapping Canandaigua Lake showed levels of algae toxins, in either raw or finished water. At the Canandaigua plant, chief operator Pete Virkler used about 250 pounds of Powdered Activated Carbon as a precaution. The substance, PAC, works by absorbing the toxin and then is filtered off and disposed of. The plant hadn’t used PAC since the 1990s, and the city has an ample supply for future years, Virkler said.

“PAC is very effective,” Boyer said. “With the Toledo issue, Toledo had a problem because they did not turn on their PAC in time. So now, water treatment plants are very sensitized to that issue.”

Boyer mentioned the Celina Water Plant on Grand Lakes in Ohio. The plant routinely treats water that has high levels of algae toxins, he said. Yet, Celina has never had the toxin detected in its finished water.

“So when water treatment plants are run right, as they are here, they are extremely good at getting it out of the water,” Boyer said.


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