To Swim or Not To Swim: The Question Surrounding Lake Neatahwanta

A cautionary sign warns residents not to swim in the lake, while a Lake Neatahwanta Revitalization sign shows city efforts to restore the lake to a swimmable public beach.

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.”

Lake Neatahwanta in Fulton, known as "the little lake by the big lake."
Lake Neatahwanta in Fulton, known as “the 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.

Signs were posted by the city of Fulton in 2004 advising residents not to swim or allow their pets in Lake Neatahwanta.
Signs were posted by the city of Fulton in 2004 advising residents not to swim or allow their pets in Lake Neatahwanta.

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.

A cautionary sign warns residents not to swim in the lake, while a Lake Neatahwanta Revitalization sign shows city efforts to restore the lake to a swimmable public beach.
A cautionary sign warns residents not to swim in the lake, while a Lake Neatahwanta Revitalization sign shows city efforts to restore the lake to a swimmable public beach.

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.


  1. What a bunch of crap! We were in contact with the lake all summer weather clearing the beach of debris, and vegetation and when we were using the Granby dredge in back of the War Memorial. Where were you “concerned” people then…certainly not caring for the health of a number of volunteers who are trying to make the Lake more presentable and cleaner! Why don’t you people spend your “concerning” time contacting Senator Ritchie to get more funds to Dredge the Lake. I looked forward to this event as did a few others and due to your medaling it’s ruined. Use your concern to physically show up to clean the Lake, your polital power to get more money to clean it up, or a pen and your checkbook to help in that way.

  2. We can ALL read the sign that states a warning. We were concerned and knowing that being a adult you would take the precautions that were necessary . NO one is stopping you from jumping in the lake. I was concerned retired nurse and Mother and grandmother, and citizen. I brought this to Frank’s attention. I thought it was common sense that the lake was not ready yet for us ALL to jump in. Medaling , I thought it was a concern for the Health And welfare of the people. So sorry Hank, now maybe Senator Ritchie will help out now so you can go jump in the lake next year.I apologize for ruining your fun for the sake of your safety. We want everyone to enjoy the lake. Maybe someday we can all look forward to going to the beach again. I for one will not until that sign comes down. Peace be with you.

  3. Well Hank, It is very simple. Take the signs down. You were working not taking a plunge big difference. The DEC gave instructions so they could still proceed with the event but they still called it off. The Mayor could have prevented any misunderstanding by checking with the same two Health Agencies before giving an OK to the event. He could have removed the signs . But as an after thought he decided to have the Chief Of Police call the Oswego County Health Dept. to see if the city could remove the signs. A little to late. No one is telling anyone they can’t jump in the lake. The two Agencies will not give an OK to do so. As far as me getting my check book out I did and did donate to the lake dredging. I was instrumental in getting all four legislators to contribute to the dredging. So don’t tell me I didn’t do anything. Your just upset the proper procedures weren’t followed to insure this event could have happened. I’m your HERO Hank as long as it suits you. I don’t work that way. Again I only asked questions the answers aren’t mine they’re someone else’s. Don’t shoot the messenger. Take the signs down.

  4. Urban Legend=”Opening up the Springs”. That idea has been tossed around here for years. You can’t “open up” springs. Hydrostatic pressure prevents springs from getting clogged. The lake is EUTROPHIC, shallow and only dredging to bedrock will restore it, at a cost of billions of dollars and the burning of millions of gallons of diesel fuel in the dredging and trucking of thousands of years’ worth of sediments. By the way, the de-watering bags used by Groh allow the dissolved phosphorus and nutrients to flow back into the lake.
    HABs are here to stay. What is sorely lacking in the Neahtawanta debacle is science. Opinions don’t matter when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars foolishly.
    800 tons of sediment enters the lake each year from Sheldon Creek, but that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lakes’ problems. Nutrient loading is the main culprit when it comes to HABs and Neahtawanta receives and stores phosphorus from runoff.
    The DEC provided funds to help prevent runoff from the Bullhead Point parking lot from reaching the lake by growing a narrow bio-berm, i.e., plants and shrubs at the water’s edge that stop the runoff’s flow from the parking lot pavement to the lake. That was a polite gesture and was intended to prevent further deterioration of water quality. Let the Lake die an ignoble death. Quit lifting the lid of the coffin to see if it’s dead yet. It will be a profitable muck farm someday.
    Just ask Dr. Greg Boyer or Dr. Joeseph Makarewicz, the lake and pond cyanobacteria experts around here. They know about Neahtawanta and they don’t paint an optimistic picture for its restoration to a HAB-free state. Write to Senator Ritchie after you have done your science-based research, telling her to stop throwing away $200,000 every year
    at an opinion, not science.

  5. Ariel saved me an in-depth digression on the matter. Thank you but I have more to add.

    The Mayor would champion the Titanic as unsinkable. There have been plenty of instsnces where he and the administration at-large simply shoot from the hip. As such, taxpayers have lost money, precious time and resources were wasted, and contracts squandered. I am perplexed how a grown adult believes 100 years of punishing the lake is somehow solved into seasons of dredging. Can he and others in the community be that naïve? He kind of reminds me of the mayor in Jaws who was urging people to get back in the water despite the obvious risk.

    Let all the plungers do what they want. They can sign a disclaimer saying the city will be held harmless for whatever comes next. Hopefully nobody gets sick, swallows a brain eating amoeba, etc. But for any who do, suffer in solitude and own up to your ignorance.

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