Science seeks answers to Cayuga Lake

KyuJung Whang

Early in the 20th century, Ithacans gradually filled in a huge marsh to allow development of what now includes portions of downtown Ithaca, Stewart and Cass parks, Elmira Road and Meadow Street. Those areas once were wetlands filled with cattails, sedges and other aquatic plants that filtered sediments and nutrients flowing into the lake. If you want to imagine what that looked like, take a drive to Watkins Glen to view the lands just south of Cayuga Lake’s nearby twin, Seneca Lake.

Those hundreds of acres of marsh in Watkins Glen today effectively filter sediments that otherwise would flow into Seneca Lake. The demise of Cayuga’s wetlands, decades of agriculture and development, and runoff from streets, sewers and tributaries, have affected the lake’s southern shelf in many ways, eventually compelling New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation to list those waters as being impaired by pollution in 2002. . . .

As part of the permit renewal process for Cornell University’s Lake Source Cooling facility, the DEC is requiring the university to fund a study of water quality conditions throughout the lake, from Ithaca to Seneca Falls. This multi-year study — named the Cayuga Lake Modeling Project — will provide the DEC and the municipalities lining its shores with sound scientific data that will guide future land- and water-use policies as well as whether the return flow from lake source cooling has negative impacts on Cayuga. That research also will enable DEC to complete a total maximum daily load (TMDL) allocation for phosphorus . . . .

The DEC is in charge of the project. Cornell will be joined in this effort by numerous stakeholders and environmental experts, such as the nonprofit Upstate Freshwater Institute of Syracuse . . . [and] consulting firm EcoLogic LLC.
Critics of this collaborative effort charge that utilizing Cornell scientists in collecting and analyzing data will bias the results in Cornell’s favor. As scholars at a world-class university, Cornell scientists are globally recognized authorities within their disciplines and are ethically bound to find, analyze and report facts in an unbiased manner. Their reputations depend on it. Moreover, the DEC will complete the TMDL, which is subject to review and approval by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. . . .

If the study concludes that lake source cooling has a significant adverse effect on the lake, the university will take the necessary steps to correct the situation under the regulatory oversight of the DEC and the EPA.

Some may ask why Cornell is so invested in lake-source cooling. The answer is that this technology is an integral part of Cornell’s long-term sustainability goals. By investing in the lake-source facility, Cornell was able to decommission six electrically-driven chillers and accelerate the phase out of ozone-depleting CFC chemicals used as refrigerants. Lake-source technology reduced electricity used to run the campus chilled water system by 87 percent, with concurrent reductions in air emissions of about 7,500 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Cornell’s lake-source facility also provides air conditioning at Ithaca High School at no charge, saving district taxpayers thousands of dollars of electric bills each year.

The Lake Source Cooling Project has been honored several times over the years, including an award of special recognition and merit from the Ecological Society of America, recognition by the New York State Society of Professional Engineers as the outstanding engineering achievement of the year, and the New York Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention.

There is no way to turn back the clock to an era when much of downtown Ithaca and Stewart Park was an idyllic wetland, but with sound science the Cayuga Lake community can ensure that this resource is protected for generations to come.

This article first appeared as a guest viewpoint in the Nov. 13 edition of the Ithaca Journal and has been shortened slightly for space considerations. Whang is Cornell’s vice president for facilities services and oversees much of the implementation Cornell’s Climate Action Plan.