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Cornell Cooperative Extension looking to educate community through action

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Skaneateles Lake provides water to much of the city of Syracuse.

There’s a threat in Skaneateles Lake, and Roy Widrig is calling on citizens to help him fight it.

Widrig, who has worked closely with the lake since 2013, is looking for volunteers from central New York to monitor the rising presence of invasive species and other problems in the vulnerable ecosystem. The program will be an extension of his work as a community educator on water quality with Cornell Cooperative Extension, a group that provides research and education to communities across New York state.

With the new monitoring program, Widrig said he hopes to push people to understand the work that goes into research and why it is important to protect the lake.

“My goal is to be there, not just as the scientist behind the scenes, but also the one delivering information firsthand to the people,” Widrig said.

Skaneateles Lake is part of the Finger Lakes system and is the water source for the town and village of Skaneateles, New York, as well as parts of the city of Syracuse. The lake, which is situated about a half-hour drive from Syracuse, is so clean that the water isn’t filtered: a blast of UV light kills bacteria and a splash of fluoride is added before it is sent down pipes and into people’s homes.

In order to keep this system, though, the lake must be closely monitored and tested for purity, which Widrig said is mainly the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Conservation and the City of Syracuse Department of Water. Otherwise, installing a filtration system could cost the city upwards of $100 million dollars, said Mike Lynn, the principal water plant operator for the city.

“As long as we … follow our guidelines we’re fine for now, but you never know in the future,” Lynn said.

Keeping the lake clean not only saves money — it also helps make money. James Lanning, Skaneateles town supervisor, said the lake is a major tourist attraction and that tourism is the driver of his town’s economy. He said Widrig and Cornell Cooperative Extension do a good job working with his team to help them shape policies that best protect the lake.

For Widrig, though, the lake is worth protection for its own sake, and for the sake of protecting a rare natural resource. Skaneateles Lake is one of few unfiltered water sources in the state and is part of a system that is hard to find anywhere else on earth, he said.

Of the new monitoring program, which is modeled on other successful programs in the Finger Lakes region, he said he hopes it will help make people aware of how valuable this resource is that is in their backyard.

“It gets them thinking about it more and gets them to ask more questions,” Widrig said. “And that’s a good way to get people to learn, to get them to ask more questions.”

There are a few problems in particular that Widrig said he wants to bring to people’s attention. While he said the lake is still doing well, two invasive species have threatened to cause erosion and crowd out native species. One is the Eurasian watermilfoil, which is a plant that grows rapidly. The other is the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, which is a bug that burrows into and kills hemlock trees, which Widrig said are a vital part of preventing erosion around Skaneateles Lake.

Charles Driscoll, a member of the Skaneateles Lake Association and professor of environmental chemistry at Syracuse University, said he thinks invasive species are one of the biggest challenges facing the lake. He said he thinks a monitoring program based on “citizen scientists” would be beneficial to both this issue and the residents who help study it.

“The most important thing is that they really understand what the challenges are so they know what it takes to protect it so we can have it for years to come,” Driscoll said.

Both Lanning and Widrig said residents of Syracuse and Skaneateles have the opportunity to help protect their own resource through this new program.

“We pretty much can dip a glass into the lake and drink it, and we’re very fortunate to have that,” Lanning said.

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