As the city of Fulton and town of Granby await permits that will allow dredging of the lake, which are expected to be delivered any day, this is the first of a multi-part feature article highlighting some of the news reports and studies published in the past few decades for Fulton’s little lake by the big lake, Lake Neatahwanta. – Ed.
FULTON, NY – A whole generation ago the city of Fulton was forced to close Stevenson Beach and North Bay Beach on Lake Neatahwanta during the middle of a summer dry spell and heat wave because the lake’s water could make people sick.
Twenty-six years ago, on July 21, 1988, Bruce Stillman, former director of the Oswego County Health Department’s environmental division, notified former Mayor Muriel Allerton that the level of fecal coliform bacteria measured in the beach water was 36,000 parts per 100 milliliters of water – more than 70 times higher than allowed.
The acceptable level of the bacteria was less than 500 parts for swimming water and zero for drinking, according to the director, and if people swam or ingested the bacteria-laden lake water it could cause gastro-intestinal ailments.
The presence of fecal coliform bacteria, according to the Department of Health, are considered an indication of animal or human waste in the water.
In addition to the stated health threat, even then residents were complaining about the blue-green algae in the lake.
“Perhaps the algae has been a blessing in disguise,” Allerton told news reporters at the time. “It has discouraged people from swimming (and potentially getting sick.)”
Stillman attributed the high level of bacteria to the shallow depth of the water, high temperatures, and lack of rain.
“Nature’s created a natural incubator,” he said, and added that since the lake was only nine feet at its deepest, the warm shallow water made favorable conditions for the bacteria to grow.
As officials learned in the days, weeks, months and years that followed the beach closures, it wasn’t just people who might get sick.
The lake itself was suffering.
And the little lake by the big lake’s health had been deteriorating for many years because of man’s interference according to Fulton resident Charles Jerred.
“Early landowners decided they wanted to extend their acreage. … On April 6, 1857, the New York State Legislature decreed that the lake level should be lowered,” Jerred wrote in November 1979.
In order to accomplish this task, Jerred said the landowners arranged to tamper with water flows in Tannery Creek, the 2-mile outlet for Lake Neatahwanta to the Oswego River.
As a result, “the lake area was permanently reduced by roughly 37 percent,” the Fulton man said. “The high bank of the east side of Lakeshore Drive is the original shoreline.”
Jerred explained that in the mid-1970s, in response to complaints from homeowners along Tannery Creek whose cellars had flooded, the city of Fulton arranged to have the lake level lowered still further.
“We have been told that, ‘the lake is back to its proper level now,'” he wrote.
“Those of us who have fished there for years know better. A tall man can now walk a surprising distance out into the lake from any shore and not get his hat wet.”
Fast forward three years to July 1982.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was in Oswego County to hold public hearings on the wetlands boundary maps proposed after the enactment of the Wetlands Act of 1975.
During one meeting, it was reported that Franny and Charles Knapp, of Lakeshore Drive, objected to the act and its regulations but wanted the DEC to know there were other more important matters at hand.
“Mrs. Knapp complained that nothing is being done to preserve the water of the lake, noting that officials have begun to worry about the continued lowering of Lake Neatahwanta’s water level,” as was reported by Mary Fultz of The Oswego County Messenger. “She said the city of Fulton has recently drilled another well to tap under-lake springs and the city has been draining off the water for years.”
In 2012 Oswego County Today reported the federal government forced the city to abandon the well in the early 1980s because the water contained higher-than-acceptable levels of naturally-occurring barium.
It was the opinion of community members that the drawing down of the lake and siphoning of its under lake spring caused the water level recession.
While the lower lake levels might explain why bacteria could flourish, the next question community members asked was, how did the fecal matter get into the lake in the first place?
The $49,500 question
The city of Fulton, like cities across the nation, was built with a sanitary sewer system that, when it rains hard, the overflow was carried directly to the nearest body of water.
The city of Oswego continues to undergo a sewer separation project and projected $87 million consent decree for violations of the Clean Water Act for the very same reason.
Before separation, Oswego saw its 100-year-old sanitary sewer lines, which were not designed to handle all of the runoff from paved streets, parking lots, roof gutters and basement sump pumps tied directly into the sewage arteries, dump the excess flow of storm water mixed with sewage directly into the Oswego River.
Testing indicated that Fulton’s excess storm water overflow for its south west residential area might have ended up in Lake Neatahwanta.
In 1988 concerned community members banded together to form the combined city of Fulton and town of Granby Lake Neatahwanta Reclamation Committee.
The body was able to secure $49,500 in state grant funding to hire the Pennsylvania firm F.X. Browne, Inc. to perform a comprehensive diagnostic and feasibility study to reclaim Lake Neatahwanta.
In addition to significant information about phosphorus and its affect on the growth of blue-green algae, another finding in the 1990 study conducted by Dr. Francis X. Browne was eight storm water overflow points were a major source of bacteria entering the lake.
This finding was confirmed 12 years later in a study by The Center for Applied Aquatic Science and Aquaculture, Environmental Science Program, SUNY Brockport.
Check back for Part II – Are Phosphates and Blue-Green Algae Killing Lake Neatahwanta?