Kayakers paddling on Owasco River toward Owasco Lake.  Photo by Chris Molloy.

As most of us know, Owasco Lake is truly a critical resource for Cayuga County.  The health of our lake impacts our community significantly.  Owasco Lake is a source of drinking water, production water for businesses, recreation for residents, and is an economic driver for tourism. Concern has been growing throughout the last two decades regarding the overall condition of Owasco Lake. The alarm bells are hard to miss with Cayuga County Department of Health notices and discovery of microcystin toxins in our drinking water last summer.  Although the levels were determined to be safe enough for consumption (drinking), concern by local officials, businesses, and residents was heightened substantially.

In order to better understand the impacts of these water quality issues on the County’s economy, the Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce and Cayuga Economic Development Agency sought input from Cayuga County businesses, municipalities, community groups, non-profits, and other organizations via a survey to assess the economic impacts of blue green algae blooms in Owasco Lake. The survey covered a series of topics inquiring about how the organizations were impacted by the algae blooms and toxins in 2016. Respondents were asked to indicate whether there was an increase, decrease, or no impact in the following areas in 2016: revenue; costs; employment levels; payroll; employee morale, health and safety; employee recruitment, customer perception, health and safety; and other. Then the respondents were asked to indicate anticipated impacts in 2017 should there be continued instances of blue green algae blooms, as well as how a “do not drink” order would impact their organization.

Moderately pleased, we received forty-nine responses. The impacts noted by respondents primarily tie to the costs of procuring water through an alternate source and revenue losses due to customer perceptions and decreased tourism. As such, the biggest changes between actual 2016 impacts and anticipated 2017 impacts are in the areas of revenue and costs. Fewer organizations expect there to be no impact in these areas, with more expecting decreased revenues and increased costs in 2017 should more severe instances of algal blooms and water quality issues occur.

Anecdotally, one manufacturer noted that should water quality issues continue in 2017, it would need to install additional filtration and treatment systems to ensure consistent water quality.   One seasonal recreation company noted a nearly 50% decrease in revenue in 2016 following the identification of blue green algae blooms, and expects that more severe instances in 2017 could close the business altogether. Furthermore, since microsystin toxins cannot be removed from the water by boiling, businesses will be forced to purchase water and have it delivered to their facilities. This is a very costly prospect for some industries in particular, like healthcare and food service. One healthcare facility expressed deep concern for patient wellbeing should the drinking water be contaminated, noting it could even shut down the facility and prevent patients from receiving care altogether. For these reasons, ongoing water quality concerns could limit our community’s ability to expand and attract businesses.

Some organizations also expressed concern about the ability to recruit residents and employees to the area should water quality continue to decline. Residents would also need to purchase water, stretching families’ budgets and affecting their financial wellbeing. Organizations are concerned that declining drinking water quality and less recreational access to the lake, or even the perception of these issues, will have a negative impact on quality of life.

There are also serious concerns regarding the economic sustainability of our communities from a tax revenue perspective. First, tourism generates a significant amount of tax revenue for Cayuga County. Tourists spent over $97m in Cayuga County last year, generating over $12m in state and local taxes. A decrease in tourism due to water quality issues could have a serious impact on our community’s bottom line. Furthermore, impacts on property tax revenue could be significant should property values decline due to reduced recreational access to the lake or concerns around drinking water quality. School districts would be particularly impacted by a reduction in property values.

There are obvious implications for quality of life and health should water quality continue to decline in the lake. However, the economic impacts add another level of concern. Continued algal blooms and elevated levels of microcystin toxins could jeopardize the financial health and sustainability of our businesses, non-profits, and municipalities. Poor water quality is expected to increase costs and decrease revenue for these entities, and as such could impact their ability to retain jobs. If your organization didn’t respond to our survey, please consider doing so now. We’ve reopened the survey and would like to encourage additional participation. The more data we have, the better we’re able to advocate for our lake. You can find the survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/OwascoLakeImpact.

Tracy Verrier is Executive Director of Cayuga Economic Development Agency and the Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce.

Published in the June 8, 2017, edition of The Citizen.