FULTON, NY – Despite the quickly approaching winter weather, a large focus looms in Fulton on Lake Neatahwanta, the city’s “little lake by the big lake.”
The focus redeveloped after a “polar plunge” event initially arranged by a volunteer organization to encourage people to plunge into Lake Neatahwanta has been canceled due to concerns that arose on the current safety status of the lake.
Oswego County Legislator for District 25, representative of the city of Fulton, Frank Castiglia approached the Fulton Common Council after having caught wind of the event.
Castiglia pointed out that hazard signs posted more than 10 years ago by the city urging caution to enter the lake due to dangerous conditions have not yet been removed and questioned whether the ongoing dredging at the lake has yet resulted in toxicity levels that are safe for immersion.
“I think everything that the Friends of Fulton Parks is doing, is great,” Castiglia said of the group that had organized the event. “But if the lake isn’t usable or safe by (health) department standards, then we would just be setting an example that it is safe.”
Castiglia reached out to the Oswego County Health Department seeking answers to his questions.
“The County has not done any water testing in Lake Neatahwanta in recent years,” the email began from Oswego County Director of Public Health Jiancheng Huang.
The email continued to explain that “SUNY ESF has been conducting routine sampling to confirm the presence of Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB) from May – October each year. The presence of cyanobacteria HAB was confirmed at levels above the DEC bloom criteria in Lake Neatahwanta this summer at least 10 times and a microscopic analysis confirmed the presence of Microcystis. These cyanobacteria taxa are capable of producing toxins and, according to the New York State Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) Archive Page, water sampling results confirmed in 2014 & 2016 that there were toxins present in quantities to potentially cause health effect if people or animals came in contact with the water.”
Huang explained that the cautionary signs were posted in 2004, “after it was reported that a dog died after swimming in an area with an algae bloom,” although acknowledging they had lost some details in reference to the signs.
He said the signs were posted by the city of Fulton with joint effort from the County Health Department to educate residents on the status of the lake and recommend against human or animal contact with the water.
However, the County Health Department currently has no jurisdiction over the lake, including the signage, as there is not a regulated bathing beach area designated at the lake, both Huang and Fulton Mayor Ronald Woodward Sr. pointed out.
Woodward said the signs did emerge as result of a dog’s death, though he could not be certain the death was direct result of swimming during an algae bloom.
“Did we just assume it? As I understand it, the dog drown. I would need to see the pathology report. I’ve never heard of such a thing before, and I haven’t heard of such a thing since,” he said.
The city, with collaboration from the town of Granby, has been dredging the lake with the intent to create a safe, swimmable lake in its entirety, but with current focus on the former Stevenson Beach area to reopen as a public beach when the toxicity levels are considered safe.
Mayor Woodward said that Lake Neatahwanta is no different than any other lake in Upstate New York citing such lakes as Oneida Shores, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie that have all been sampled with elevated levels of cyanobacteria, otherwise referred to as blue green algae.
“I know these other lakes have the same problem. But, there’s only one lake I’m concerned with. I want it to be okay for people to use it, but I want to know that from all three departments: the county health department, the state health department and the DEC,” Castiglia said.
“No health department is going to say ‘yeah, we guarantee you that it’s safe.’ They’re just not going to. Look at Green Lakes, they were shut down for blue green algae. A few days later, they reopened. Are they going to tell you that is safe?” the Mayor questioned.
Having just finished the third dredging season, the city is moving forward with plans to open the beach area of the lake as early as next summer.
Woodward said the signs remain in place in alignment with the recommendation of the Oswego County Health Department, but entirely by the city of Fulton’s own judgement. After SUNY ESF completes another sample and the beach process is closer to an official reopening, the signs will be removed.
“In the emails from Frank (Castiglia), it says from (Huang) that ‘it is not algae season but we do not know whether other chemicals in the lake prohibit people dipping into the lake.’ That right there shows me that without algae bloom in season, there would be no risk for that for the plunge that was scheduled to happen in December,” Woodward said.
As for the possibility of chemical presence in the water, Woodward says that is simply not true either.
“Chemical contamination, there is none. We paid $24,000 worth of sampling to the DEC before we could even start dredging, it all showed nothing. Even the dredging material, it is category A material meaning it can be used for anything. That shows you there is nothing there. The only problem we have had is blue green algae,” he explained.
Woodward said he is confident the lake would be “completely safe” for the intended polar plunge.
“It’s a 300-acre lake. In different parts of the lake there can be elevated levels in bloom season, in the summer. We’re going to get hits of blue green algae forever, especially in areas of the lake that are particularly stagnant or have the nutrients for it,” Woodward said, noting that the lake had been formed by glaciers and had never been dredged since it’s creation.
Especially as it is surrounded by farms, it came as no surprise to him that the blue green algae became an issue.
Woodward said SUNY ESF will continue sampling, the dredging will continue for another five to seven years at least, and a continued emphasis on the former Stevenson Beach area designated to be opened as a public beach again will remain priority to be kept safe and clean.
“We certainly don’t want anyone in there if it’s not going to be safe, so I understand the concern,” Woodward said. “But it’s sad and unfair that this has created such an uproar. It’s quite simple if you take the time to understand it.”
Chief of Lake Monitoring and Assessment Section for the NYSDEC Division of Water, Scott Kishbaugh also weighed in on the possibility of hosting a polar plunge at Lake Neatahwanta.
He emphasizes that SUNY ESF samplers had not sampled the water in recent weeks, but that there were active algae blooms in mid-October “albeit with low toxin levels,” his email revealed.
He noted that, “Neither the DOH nor the DEC could attest to the safety of the lake for contact recreation, including ‘polar bear’ immersion,” but provided some recommendations as to hosting the event with proper testing and reduced risks.
Kishbaugh suggested event sponsors use a lifeguard to test all areas for surface blooms, debris, or other outstanding risks, providing a hose to rinse any debris left after exiting the water, and instructing participants to avoid uninspected areas, informing all participants of these risks and precautions.
One Fulton resident, Dennis Merlino said he follows similar precautions after swimming in any pubic water and has fared just fine swimming in the lake following these measures.
“I respect what you’re saying,” Merlino said to Castiglia. “But I’ve been swimming in Lake Neatahwanta all summer, along with my kids and my dogs and we are fine. We come home and hose the dogs off, take a shower, the same precautions we take when we swim in a public pool. I’m still here, things are nice, the lake is beautiful.”
Despite Mayor Woodward’s confidence in the event to be held safely and suggestions from Kishbaugh, Woodward said the Friends of Fulton Parks has chosen to cancel the event.
Would you take the plunge into Lake Neatahwanta? Tell us in the comment section below.