The Cayuga Lake Defense Fund - Citizen's Guide to

Chapter Three: An Overview of Cayuga Lake's Water Pollution Problems

Water quality in the southern portion of Cayuga Lake is already impaired due to a combination of point-source pollution discharges from publicly owned wastewater treatment plants as well as non-point source discharges from uncontrolled stormwater and agricultural runoff as well as streambank and roadbank erosion.

The Lake Source Cooling Project could exacerbate existing water pollution problems in Cayuga Lake for three key reasons:

  1. Cold water pumped from the depths of Cayuga Lake would be phosphorus rich. The ongoing release of this nutrient would promote the vegetative growth of algae and aquatic weeds. This could cause aesthetic water quality problems associated with plant infestations and low dissolved oxygen levels caused by the breakdown of large quantities of vegetative material.

  2. Even small increases in the lake's temperature could promote the growth of algae and aquatic weeds. Portions of southern Cayuga Lake are already choked with weeds and algae during the summer and fall. As a result, aesthetic and dissolved oxygen problems could worsen.

  3. Lead, cadmium and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons identified on the site of the proposed heat exchange facility could emanate into Cayuga Lake via groundwater discharges, fugitive dust emissions and other uncontrolled releases. These persistent toxic pollutants could contribute to environmental and public health risks posed by other toxic sites that are in close proximity to Cayuga Lake.

Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act

Pursuant to section 303(d) of the U.S. Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C.1313(d), New York listed Cayuga Lake as a threatened Class AA(T) water quality limited segment for nutrient and silt pollution. This listing is required for waters where effluent limitations required by federal law are insufficiently stringent to implement applicable water quality standards. See Figure Six.

Pursuant to section 122.4 of the U. S. Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1313(d), no permit may be granted: "To a new source or a new discharger, if the discharge from its construction or operation will cause or contribute to the violation of water quality standards." Since Cayuga Lake has been determined to be threatened by nutrient pollutants, the Lake Source Cooling Project's proposed "new" discharge of phosphorus should clearly be prohibited. Since construction of the project could exacerbate silt pollution hazards, the permit also should have been denied. Instead it was granted.

Finally, pursuant to Section 303(d)(l)(C), each state is required to establish for waters included in the 303(d) listing "the total maximum daily load" (TMDL) for those pollutants which are necessary to implement the applicable water quality standard. That TMDL has yet to be adopted.

Priority Waterbodies List

Existing water pollution problems in southern Cayuga Lake and each of its major tributaries were cataloged by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation when the Priority Waterbodies List for the Oswego-Seneca-Oneida River Basin was published in 1996.16 This report was compiled in order to identify a list of surface waters that "either cannot be fully used as a resource, or have problems that can damage their environmental integrity."

These bodies of surface water have a number of "use impairments" affecting: water supply, bathing, fish propagation, fish survival and aesthetics. The severity of these use impairments ranges from "stressed" to "threatened." Those classifications are defined below:


"Water quality currently supports waterbody uses and the ecosystem exhibits no obvious signs of stress, however existing or changing land use patterns may result in restricted use or ecosystem disruption (e.g. numerous proposals for residential development in the Schoharie Creek headwaters create a concern - fish propagation, aesthetics threatened,) or,

Water quality currently supports waterbody uses and the ecosystem exhibits no obvious signs of stress, however monitoring data reveals a declining trend in water quality which, if it continues, would result in a use impairment, or

Waterbody uses are not restricted and no water quality problems exist, but the watertbody is a highly valued resource deemed worthy of special protection and consideration. Note: Such special protection situations are the only instance where a threatened use can have a documentation level of possible, other threatened waterbodies (i.e., those related to changing land use activities) must correspond to known or suspected (planned) land use changes."


"Waterbody uses are not significantly limited or restricted, but occasional water quality, or quantity, conditions and/or associated habitat degradation periodically discourages the use of the waterbody (e.g., high turbidity that occurs after rains reduce clarity and deter swimmers in Babcock Lake - bathing/swimming stressed, ambient water column analysis indicates occasional aquatic standard violations but impaired use not evident - fish survival/propagation stressed; localized areas of debris along the shore - aesthetic stressed)."

For waterbodies with use impairments, there is a Resolution Potential classification of High, Medium and Low. These classifications are defined below:

High Resolution Potential: "indicates that the water quality problem has been deemed to be worthy of the expenditure of available resources (time and dollar) because the level of public interest and the expectation that the commitment of these resources will result in measurable improvement in the situation."

Medium Resolution Potential: "generally indicates that the resources necessary to address the problem are beyond what are currently available."17

Low Resolution Potential: "indicate water quality problems so persistent that improvements are expected to require an unrealistically high commitment of resources, not likely to become available (e.g., acid rain lakes)."

The Priority Waterbodies List profile for Southern Cayuga Lake and its major tributaries are excerpted in the printed guide.18 Here is the listing for Cayuga Lake.

Prepared by the Cayuga Lake Defense Fund (CLDF).
For more information, Call: 275-9054 or 272-7914 or email

CLDF 1998