Seneca Lake group organizes

Gwen Chamberlain

The scientist who has been studying Seneca Lake’s water quality for more than two decades says there is clear evidence that human activity has an impact on the source of drinking water for thousands of people. John Halfman, a professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, says it’s not too late to make changes that can save the lake, and a group of representatives from many of the 40 municipalities within the lake’s watershed are taking steps toward changes.

“If it’s a cooperative venture, there’s a chance we can change things,” Halfman said. But he also noted that he’s been delivering this message for quite some time, and people respond that Seneca Lake can recover on its own because it is such a large body of water.

By adopting by-laws for the Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization Sept. 22, the newly organized group is setting the course for coordinated efforts to improve water quality in the lake.

A group of about 25 people, including representatives from different municipalities met at the Yates County Office Building last week to hear a presentation by Halfman before adopting the bylaws.

Halfman summarized data collected from lake studies of nutrient loading since 1991, stating that while there is always algae in the lake, there is more blue green algae (a bacteria) plus weeds in the lake now, and the water quality is declining. Sources of nutrients include agricultural fertilizers, animal feedlots, wastewater nutrients and on-site systems.

His studies began as the zebra mussel population in the lake was exploding in the 1990s. After the zebra mussels died off, algae grew, and now the water is progressively more turbid, which results in more nutrients and even more turbidity. “We’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.

Measuring phosphate at nine tributaries around the lake, Halfman has found the highest concentrations from Reeder Creek, where run off from the former Seneca Army Depot and large pig farm operations are major impacts and Big Stream in Starkey, most likely due to the Dundee Village wastewater treatment plant.

Noting that Seneca Lake also has the highest levels of chloride in the Finger Lakes, Halfman said the Seneca Watershed Management Plan will be the basis for projects that might be eligible for grants to address sources of problems.

The Seneca Lake Plan was funded by a three year grant awarded to the city of Geneva by the NYS Local Waterfront Revitalization Fund. The plan will serve as a long-term strategy for the protection and restoration of water quality and ensure compatible land use and development. The result of these efforts will be a workable management plan for the protection and enhancement of Seneca Lake.

Halfman already does some consultation for a group in the Owasco watershed, where a $20,000 investment in his services has resulted in a $900,000 grant earmarked to help farmers change practices that now impact Owasco Lake.

The group also heard a report on a stream sampling project coordinated by Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association.

Representatives from Yates County and the towns of Milo, Torrey, Benton and Starkey were among the group at the meeting.

The watershed includes the municipalities listed below. Not all of the municipalities have signed agreements to participate in the group, says co-chair James Smith, a Yates County Legislator from Torrey.:

Chemung County

Towns of: Big Flats, Catlin, Horseheads, Veteran

Villages of: Horseheads, Millport

Ontario County

City of: Geneva

Towns of: Geneva, Gorham, Phelps, Seneca

Schuyler County

Towns of: Catharine, Cayuta, Dix, Hector, Montour, Orange, Reading, Tyrone

Villages of: Burdett, Montour Falls, Odessa, Watkins Glen

Seneca County

Towns of: Covert, Fayette, Lodi, Ovid, Romulus, Varick, Waterloo

Villages of: Lodi, Ovid

Yates County

Towns of: Barrington, Benton, Milo, Potter, Torrey, Starkey

Villages of: Dresden, Dundee, Penn Yan

Seneca IO will work with other agencies, such as SLAP-5 (Seneca Lake Area Partners in Five Counties), Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, and soil & water conservation districts within the watershed.

The group will meet again in January at the Geneva Town Hall., when officers will be elected.