Permission Granted: Lake Neatahwanta Dredging Gets DEC Green Light

Reclamation Committee member Doug Chapman at the city's Lake Neatahwanta beach in 1969.

This is the second 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. Click here for Part I – Ed.

FULTON, NY – City officials have received the permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to allow dredging of Lake Neatahwanta – a significant step in returning the fresh water body to a healthy condition.

Reclamation Committee member Doug Chapman at the city's Lake Neatahwanta beach in 1969.
Reclamation Committee member Doug Chapman at the city’s Lake Neatahwanta beach in 1969.

Mayor Ron Woodward said he hopes the little lake by the big lake can finally be cleaned up, before another whole generation is denied the joys of splashing on the beach.

“We owe them that,” he said. “We received our permit this afternoon,” Woodward said on Friday (July 25). “Now we can send out the request for proposals to begin dredging.”

The permit was finally awarded after more than two decades of state and community funded research in what has been described by the mayor and other city officials as a tedious process.

According to the city’s application, the project consists of phased hydraulic dredging of approximately 10,000 cubic yards of sludge material from the bottom of the lake; dewatering the sludge using geotubes “at several locations along the lake shore”; and reuse of the material for municipal-oriented composting and soil amendment.

“The first phase of the dredging operation will focus on the eastern near shore area of the lake within the city of Fulton,” the application states.

Dredging has been the elusive goal to restore the waters of Lake Neatahwanta to swimmable health since the closure of the city’s public beaches 26 years ago due to excessively high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

This 1969 photo shows then 8-year-old Doug Chapman playing in the water at Stevenson Beach, Lake Neatahwanta, Fulton.
This 1969 photo shows then 8-year-old Doug Chapman playing in the water at Stevenson Beach, Lake Neatahwanta, Fulton.

At that time in 1988 the newly formed Lake Neatahwanta Reclamation Committee – a joint venture between Fulton and town of Granby citizens, pressed for answers as to what was polluting the lake and how to fix it.

The body was able to secure $49,500 in grant funding and in 1990 hired the Pennsylvania firm F.X. Browne, Inc., to perform a comprehensive diagnostic and feasibility study on the Lake Neatahwanta watershed, but that was just the beginning.

Sewage, phosphates, blue-green algae and dredging

The results of Browne’s year-long study – which focused on phosphate levels in the lake, were released to the public on Nov. 29, 1990, during a meeting at the War Memorial.

After that meeting local news reporter Terry Bennett wrote that Dr. Francis X. Browne said the watershed was “out of whack” but his prognosis for the lake was promising.

The F.X. Browne study identified three problems in Lake Neatahwanta:

  • -bacteria, like that found by the health department which caused the original closure of the beaches, was entering the water via the municipal and private sewers;
  • -the lake was burdened with an overload of phosphates;
  • -and the phosphates were contributing to the vigorous growth of blue-green algae.

Christine Reichgott, of F.X. Browne, Inc., explained that it was the high level of phosphates and sediment in Lake Neatahwanta that fed the algae and weed growth.

She added that the watershed ratio of 16 to 1 was a hopeful sign that the lake was a good candidate for reclamation.

“Weed growth is excessive,” Browne told the Reclamation Committee in 1990. “This is out of control.”

Recommendations in the state-funded survey included long term methods such as watershed management and short term solutions such as weed harvesting and dredging.

“What you need is a combination of the two,” Browne told the committee.

“To avoid future problems … you’ve basically got to stop nutrients from coming into the lake,” he said.

With agriculture as the primary land use in the area at that time – and potentially the primary source of phosphate runoff into the shallow body, Browne suggested public education regarding agriculture control and also addressing public and private sewer systems that contribute to the lake’s non-clarity.

Restoring the natural springs would also increase the watershed ratio and thereby the lake’s health.

Before the build-up of sediment the lake was also spring fed, but Browne was uncertain whether dredging the lake bottom of nearly 8 feet of built-up sediment would revive the under lake springs.

Eutrophic Condition

While Browne’s study revealed the levels of phosphates as the cause of the excessive weed growth, it did not pinpoint the source.

So, in 1994 the Oswego County Soil and Water Conservation District contracted with the Center for Applied Aquatic Science and Aquaculture in the Department Biological Sciences at SUNY Brockport to do a comprehensive water quality assessment.

SUNY Brockport’s study suggested “the highly eutrophic condition of Lake Neatahwanta is in large due to the very high loadings of nutrients from the surrounding watershed.”

The report goes on to summarize, “specifically, Sheldon Creek was identified as a major contributor of phosphorus and total suspended solids to the lake,” going on to say that the amount of nutrients entering the lake from Sheldon Creek were in excess of what had been observed in creeks receiving “point source loadings from small sewage treatment plants.” Improvement of the water quality of Lake Neatahwanta would depend on identifying the major source(s) of those nutrients and remediating them.

Building on the F.X. Browne study and its 1994 study, in the next eight years the researchers from SUNY Brockport, funded by the Finger Lakes Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance, in cooperation with the Oswego Soil and Water Conservation District, would conduct a second study specifically identifying the phosphate sources.

In May 2002, SUNY Brockport’s Joseph Makarewicz and Theodore Lewis pinpointed the source of the phosphates as farmlands along Sheldon Creek.

“Samples were collected and analyzed from the three tributaries of Lake Neatahwanta. … After three years of sampling, the database was large enough to provide a reasonable estimate of the annual nutrient and sediment loss from the tributaries into Lake Neatahwanta allowing the subwatersheds to be prioritized.”

Makarewicz and Lewis wrote, “The conclusion that Sheldon Creek and its watershed are the dominant source of sediments and nutrients to Lake Neatahwanta is inescapable.”

With that, scientists effectively advised the Conservation District that the farms along Sheldon Creek were losing highly fertile soil and nutrients which was stimulating the production of weeds and algae in the lake.

That increased algae growth, the study suggested, caused an imbalance in the natural food chain.

“That is, herbivorous zooplankton that normally remove excessive algae are selectively removed from the lake by an over abundance of small planktivorous fish,” the study stated.

SUNY Brockport’s recommendations to restore the natural balance included stocking the lake with large predatory fish – to eat the smaller fish and help restore the population of even smaller algae-eaters; to mechanically remove weeds; to reduce the amount of nutrient and soil loss from the nearby farmlands; and dredging.

1998, still no beaches

As SUNY Brockport scientists were collecting and analyzing the watershed and its data, Granby resident Fanny Knapp, a member of the Lake Neatahwanta Reclamation Committee, decided to take matters into her own hands.

In a local news article reported by Dave Taylor, Mrs. Knapp thanked  the people who helped her collect sediment samples to send to Cornell University for testing.

“I want to thank two concerned gentlemen who got samples of the residue covering the bottom of the lake and measuring its depth,” Mrs. Knapp was quoted by the local newspaper on Oct. 28, 1998.

“These samples were taken on a calm morning when we could see fish jumping, as we know fish congregate near springs no matter how small the flow. The spot was directly in line with the old pump house and a little southwest of the Bullhead Point parking area.”

Mrs. Knapp said Karl Slobe, of Scriba, “donned his scuba gear to make the dives and used conduit supplied by Knapp Electric to measure the depth.”

Jack Wilson Jr., of, Granby, supplied the boat and motor.

“I want everyone concerned with the lake to know what we found,” she said, and reported as follows:
Under 8 feet of water the mush is 10 feet deep.
Samples sent to Cornell for testing gave these results:
PH 6.9,
Phosphorus (P#/A) 149,
Potassium (K#/A) 405,
Magnesium (Mg #/A) 1325,
Calcium (Ca #/A) 9730,
Aluminum (Al#/A) 48,
Iron (Fe #/A) 4,
Manganese (Mn #/A) 150,
Zinc (Zn #/A) 6.0,
Organic Matter (%) 16.9,
Nitrate (No3-N#/A) 18.

Then she added, “If this stuff on the bottom of our lake could be an advantage to any land use, we need to find an economical way to get it out. … I would like to hear from anyone who has any suggestions to help clear the bottom before our beautiful lake is just a mud puddle.”

It would be three more years before SUNY Brockport would release its findings showing the source of the phosphates.

IMG_3481While decades of studies declared the presence of phosphates which contributed to the growth of blue-green algae in Lake Neatahwanta, on June 2, 2004, the community became keenly aware of how dangerous the water had become after it was reported that a pet dog died after swimming in the algae-rich water.

Three days later the city posted signs along the beach that warned visitors of the blue-green algae threat, “no swimming”, “keep pets out of water” and included a phone number to report dead wildlife.

Check back for Part III – what is blue-green algae and why is it deadly?