Researchers and volunteer advocates have joined in an effort to make the best decisions about improving water quality in the Seneca Lake watershed

This article is the first of a series that takes a closer look at the health of Seneca Lake, and efforts to improve the water quality of the lake and the tributaries that feed it.

Harmful Algae Blooms, nutrients, phosphorus, and invasive species in one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the continental United States — all are issues that kept a room at Hobart & William Smith College full March 24 for the 2018 Seneca Lake Water Quality Summit.

Those issues each require much more attention, according to Mark Venuti, chairperson of the Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization, who says the lake needs a specific plan encompassing nine elements prescribed by the state, and a watershed steward to coordinate efforts to improve the lake’s health.

“The Lake is not a static organism,” said DEC research scientist Lewis McCaffrey of the Finger Lakes Water Hub, explaining its recent transition to a waterbody with less oxygen and higher levels of nutrients. Another presenter, John Halfman of Hobart & William Smith Colleges, said those elevated nutrients help feed the ancient organisms that result in the harmful algae blooms that have appeared on area lakes recently. And based on the research, the algae that results in those blooms will not be going away, but humans can take action to lessen the instance of their impact on the lake, which provides drinking water to thousands of people, and recreational opportunities to thousands more.

During the six hours of presentations, attendees also heard reports from:

• Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association: An overview of water quality monitoring; data collection and plans for future monitoring of blue-green algae blooms; and strategies for preventing stormwater runoff with green infrastructure.

• Community Science Institute: A summary of key findings from stream monitoring

• Finger Lakes Institute: An update on overall research on the lake from Professor John Halfman who has been studying Seneca Lake since the 1990s.

• Department of Environmental Conservation Finger Lakes Water Hub, on statewide lake health research history and the state’s plan for pollution mitigation

• Ontario County Soil & Water District on agricultural environmental management practices

Key take-aways from the day-long event included:

• The Seneca Lake Intermunicipal Organization is seeking support from more of the municipalities around the lake. Twenty-four of the 40 municipalities in five counties in the Seneca Lake watershed are participating in the organization. The Yates County Legislature, the towns of Milo, Potter, Starkey, and Torrey, and the villages of Dundee and Penn Yan are participating. The town of Jerusalem and village of Dresden are still considering involvement, but the towns of Barrington and Benton have declined to participate. Because Keuka Lake drains into Seneca Lake via the Keuka Outlet, the Keuka Lake watershed is also included in the Seneca Lake watershed.

• In the past 20 years, the lake has transitioned from oligotrophic to mesotrophic, meaning there has been an increase in nutrients and a decrease in oxygen to support aquatic life. In fact, as recently as 2016, the lake was considered oligotrophic, which is the best category for water quality, according to a report from the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association.

• Volunteers are needed to assist with monitoring the lakeshore for blue-green algae and for continued sampling of streams.

• Funds are needed to continue research and evaluation efforts and to begin taking steps to resolve some of the issues.

• Continued cooperation is needed from various organizations, local municipalities, state and federal officials, and property owners in the watershed.

The Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization is building a plan of action based on the 2012 Seneca lake Watershed Management Plan, which builds on the 1999 State of the Lake report prepared by Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association. Venuti says that 2012 plan analyzed local municipality codes and made recommendations for towns and villages to incorporate to help protect the watershed.

Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association and the various county Soil & Water Conservation Districts have developed resources for property owners to help reduce pollution from stormwater runoff, which is the largest source of nutrients in the lake.

Future installments will take a deeper dive into the research, efforts planned for the future, and details about ways reduce the introduction of nutrients into the lake.