September 11, 2007

Cayuga Lake Cooling Project Criticized

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While this summer marked the seventh operating year for Cornell’s lake source cooling facility on Cayuga Lake, the anniversary has not marked a lucky break in resolving worries over lake health and the controversial cooling plant.
Concerned community activists in Ithaca have been keeping a close eye on the project since its approval in 1998. Many activists view the facility as a threat to the lake’s delicate ecosystem. This year has been no different despite recent talks between Cornell’s utilities department and Tompkins County’s Water Resources Council that focused on improving water quality monitoring at the plant.
Attempting to win over the opposition, the University has engaged in dialogue with the WRC to review the current monitoring system and solicit advice on how to better handle the facility’s monitoring duties. Early assessments have revealed costly redundancies in some areas of the system and needed additions in other areas — an eye-opening start to what is hoped to be a productive partner ship.
“We’re trying to work together to come up with a better monitoring plan to better meet community needs,” said Roxy Johnston, vice chair of the WRC.
However, for the opposition, new monitoring plans may not be the answer. Leading the crusade, the Cayuga Lake Defense Fund asserts that due to Cornell’s LSC, the health of the lake is declining.
“South Cayuga is worse off now than it was before Cornell’s lake source cooling facility began,” said Rich DePaolo, CLDF spokesperson.
Citing recent high levels of phosphorous in the lake, DePaolo’s organization contends that Cornell is polluting Cayuga lake through the water discharge coming out of the LSC facility. This input, he argues, is causing increasing levels of phosphorous, and thereby large algal blooms and seaweed mats throughout the southern lake area and its tributaries.
When the University’s project permit comes up for renewal in March of next year, DePaolo said his organization is going to fight to hold Cornell responsible for maintaining the current nine monitoring stations along the LSC system. Cornell officials, on the other hand, hope to reduce the number of stations by seven in an effort to save costs. More than likely, the CLDF will also suggest moving the system’s water output to deeper waters to reduce effects of the discharge — a measure the CLDF has pushed for years.
Taking an opposing position on the debate, Carlos Rymer ’09, president of Cornell’s Sustainability Hub and vice president of Kyoto Now!, feels the evidence shows no need for such concerns.
“Year after year the data show that the facility is not contributing to the degradation of the lake. I think it’s a great thing that people are thinking about potential problems but we have so much data showing no significant impacts on the environment,” he said.
Rymer said that speculations of any University cover-up of pertinent data are unfounded because the people monitoring this project — from Cornell administrators and scientists to contracted nonprofit groups — are professionals genuinely concerned about the health of the lake’s ecosystem.
“Everything I’ve seen as far as the phosphorous load from the lake source cooling facility is minimal, especially compared to other sources,” said Dave Matthews, a research scientist of the Upstate Freshwater Institute, a nonprofit research organization committed to the improvement of water quality and advancement of freshwater research.
“It looks like a good project, and we haven’t seen any significant impacts,” he said.
According to Matthews, development, agriculture and wastewater treatment facilities pose larger threats to the lake health.
“With time and more data on the lake, I think people will begin to see the facility really is no harm,” Rymer said.
Rymer feels that while people should be inquisitive about the project, there is no need to be suspicious. Like many other project advocates, he thinks more focus should be placed on the positive aspects of LSC like benefits for the atmosphere and decreased electricity consumption.
By using the lake’s cold water to pull heat from warmer water used in air cooling systems on campus, the University has cut electricity used for cooling by 85 percent and eliminated the need for using greenhouse gas-emitting energies and large refrigerants using harmful chlorofluorocarbons.
Harnessing Cayuga’s renewable supply of cold water from 250 feet below the lake’s surface, the LSC system pumps frigid lake water to a heat exchange interface near campus where heat naturally flows from hot to cold — from 60 degree campus water to 39 degree lake water — passively cooling campus water needed to keep buildings comfortable during summer months.
Current data and project success stories may not be enough to resolve the issue though, as many Ithacans have come to realize. Encouraging greater public involvement in the matter, the Cayuga Lake Watershed Intermunicipal Organization is holding a public forum to discuss community outlooks and concerns on Sept. 26 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Six Mile Creek Vineyard.