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Project to keep toxins out of Owasco Lake at a standstill

Payne Horning
Sen. Charles Schumer, left, talks with Cayuga County Legislature Chairman Kevin Batman, middle, and Auburn Mayor Michael Quill about the toxins issue in Owasco Lake.

A project that could reduce the amount of toxins in Oswasco Lake, a primary source of drinking water for about a dozen communities in Cayuga County, is stalled.

The goal of the Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration Project is to build the floodplain around Oswasco Lake with plants and basins that can naturally filter out the toxins in the water from the surrounding tributaries. Phase one of the project was approved for $700,000 in state funding back in 2011. Its designer Bruce Natale says they've been securing permits and contractors ever since.

"It's just a very slow, frustrating process," Natale said. 

There's one last hurdle the project needs to clear: approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During a visit to the town of Owasco on Monday, Sen. Charles Schumer said the Corps has been inundated this year with work because of the flooding around Lake Ontario, but he's going to start applying pressure to get them to issue the federal wetlands permit.

"We shouldn't wait because things are getting worse," Scumer said. "I want to make it clear that the project is too important to be sitting on a desk. You don't want any trouble when it comes to something as precious as drinking water."

A spokesperson for the Corps says they "recognize the importance of this project" and will be finished with the decision document within a couple of weeks.

Natale says local officials are currently applying for the funding needed for phase two, which he estimates will cost $600,000.

New York state gave Auburn $2 million this year to install activated charcoal filters, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that was only a short-term fix.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.