Investments in clean water crucial to North Country health, tourism

How many readers know what’s at stake when our waterways and water sources are contaminated?

Here’s what we’re risking: Property values. Tourism dollars. Human health. The safety of wild animals and household pets.

Do I have your attention now? These things are central to quality of life, especially here in the North Country. Clean water isn’t something we can take for granted — nor is it something public- and private-sector leaders in our region can afford to ignore.

This fall, Lake Colby, Lower Saranac Lake and Moose Pond saw their first confirmed harmful algal blooms. These types of blooms, known as HABs, contain toxins that can be dangerous to people and animals. HABs are naturally occurring, quick to form, and becoming more common due to climate change and environmental pollution.

Further north, Southwick endured one of several beach closures across New York state due to HAB outbreaks this summer. Think of the lost revenue in those towns. But the alternative — jeopardizing the safety of visitors, residents and pets — is much worse.

Look no further than Toledo, Ohio, a community that, like some North Country cities, sits at the edge of a Great Lake. Residents ended their day on August 1, 2014, like any other. Overnight, a HAB outbreak on Lake Erie took hold in the city’s drinking water system. Half a million people were thrust into a water crisis they didn’t see coming. Toledoans couldn’t drink, cook, or even brush their teeth with the contaminated water flowing from their taps.

The people of Toledo still live with the consequences of that HAB outbreak today: the anxiety that comes with every report of a new HAB outbreak; lost revenue in the fishing and charter boat industries; increased costs to residents’ water bills, estimated at nearly $100 per year for a family of five.

We can’t let that happen in New York state.

Thankfully, New York sees the potential in investing in clean water technology. Clarkson University and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry are working together to safeguard our water sources in the Empire State. With funding from NYSTAR — the state’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation — these two schools have launched the New York state Center of Excellence in Healthy Water Solutions.

This center is an emerging hotbed of research in clean-water technology. Just as important, it connects the academic community with the business sector, accelerating the development of these innovations to the market.

NYSTAR’s investment, combined with funding from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, is already paying off. We are on the precipice of being able to treat HAB outbreaks at the source, as soon as they happen, with portable technology that can be operated by nearly anyone with a boat.

The breakthrough happened in a 10-millimeter beaker at Clarkson and might have stopped there if not for NYSTAR and DEC support. The Center of Excellence in Healthy Water Solutions helped Clarkson’s professor establish the company ResET Water and scale the discovery to a prototype called the HAB Terminator.

Mounted directly on a boat, the HAB Terminator has been proven to clean 100 gallons of surface water per minute. With final approvals on the horizon, these portable, self-contained units will soon be available to lake management organizations and others tasked with maintaining local waterways.

This innovation will be used to combat HAB outbreaks quickly, before they cause lasting economic damage, health issues, or drinking water crises such as the one in Toledo.

HABs are just one contaminant. The North Country is also home to DMAX Plasma and RemWell, two companies that are developing new ways to treat PFAS — dangerous chemicals that pose a danger if concentrated in drinking water sources.

This is important work that can’t be done in a vacuum.

Researchers and startups need more funding sources to ensure the next major advancement can scale from beaker to prototype to market. We need more supporters like NYSTAR and the DEC — those who recognize the value of clean-water investments to protect our loved ones, local economies, and ways of life.

I’m calling on those in public and private industry to take notice — for lawmakers and business leaders to see the promise of this next-generation research.

In the North Country, we can do more than merely avoid being the cautionary tale in someone else’s essay. We’re on the cusp of empowering big thinkers, researchers and entrepreneurs to create and sustain healthy communities. With continued focus on this work, New York will be viewed as the country’s leader in clean-water technology.

And that’s good for all of us.

 — — —

Stefan Grimberg is a professor in civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson University, co-director of the Center of Excellence in Healthy Water Solutions, and co-founder of the Northern New York-based startup ResET Water, LLC. He lives in Potsdam.


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