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Rushville water ban raises stakes in algae battle

When blue-green algae toxins showed up in the drinking water at the Rushville plant Oct. 11, it was all hands on deck. Arriving at village hall from a Canandaigua Lake Watershed Council meeting — where blue-green algae was a main topic — Rushville Mayor John Sawers got the alarm.

“All of a sudden, a kicker from the bloom,” he said.

With some 32 million gallons of water from the Rushville plant serving home faucets and school drinking fountains in Rushville and Middlesex, hundreds of customers had to be notified that Thursday afternoon. The mayor said a team of local, county and state officials went into action. Word went out about the drinking water ban with papers in doors, phone calls, media alerts and other means. Wegmans donated water, and the state supplied pallets with pickup at fire halls.

“It’s remarkable how it all came together,” the mayor said.

Brad Hutton, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Health, said the toxin was detected in the plant and then testing at the first tap showed chlorine was working to break up the toxin. “I think the chlorine was working,” Hutton said. But the ban was issued to avoid risk to the most vulnerable populations, using federal standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, he said, that are issued to protect babies and young children, along with sick and elderly people who could be affected.

The ban was lifted that Saturday, but questions remain. What about avoiding such emergencies in the future? And what about prevention?

Blue-green algae blooms, now a problem worldwide, in recent years hit home in the Finger Lakes. Canandaigua Lake experienced its first-ever toxic bloom in 2015. The lake is a drinking water source for some 70,000 people. All the water plants sourcing the lake for public drinking water — in the city of Canandaigua, Palmyra, Newark, Gorham and Rushville — have filtration and chlorination systems. “In most incidences these do provide adequate protection,” Hutton said.

Only one plant, in the city of Canandaigua, has the means to take extraordinary measures in the face of blue-green algae. Testing is routine.

“When we do hear of an algae breakout we take an additional step to ensure water safety that includes a charcoal type filter, as a precautionary measure,” said Canandaigua City Manager John Goodwin.

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