Seneca-Keuka Watershed plan nears final stages

Seneca-Keuka Watershed Partnership
Croplands, the most common land use type in the watershed, are associated with the highest proportion of total phosphorous loading to the lakes. Croplands were followed by, in descending order, hay and pasture, forest and wetlands, developed land, and viticulture.

The public has had a first look at the data, planning, and recommendations for the Seneca-Keuka Watershed 9 Element Plan. See the presentation at

Seneca-Keuka Watershed Partnership

SENECA & KEUKA LAKES — As the Finger Lakes Region records more visitors, residents, businesses, and development, the impact on what makes the area so attractive — fresh water lakes — is notable. The Seneca-Keuka Watershed Partnership is preparing recommendations to protect and improve the quality of water in the Seneca and Keuka Lake Watershed with draft material presented at a public review session on Oct. 7 (see the presentation at Those recommendations are being built on previous water quality research, plans, and local ordinances with a goal to identify trends and possible scenarios to better control the impact of growth and increased activity on and around Keuka and Seneca lakes.

To quantify the sources of pollution, a partnership of lake organizations, working with consultant EcoLogic LLC and others, are studying historic and current situations, including development trends and local municipal ordinances. Cornell University Associate Professor George Frantz and a group of students compiled data showing that zoning laws have been adopted in nearly 80 percent of the municipalities within the watershed which includes parts of Yates, Ontario, Steuben, Seneca, Schuyler, and Chemung counties. However, just 23 percent of the municipalities have adopted a Comprehensive Plan in the past 10 years, and 20 percent of the municipalities have no Comprehensive Plan, the basis for zoning laws. In addition, just 50 percent of the municipalities have adopted erosion or sedimentation control laws, and 50 percent have wastewater management laws.

Those laws — or the lack of them — are factors in the impact of development. Frantz and his group used satellite imagery to track development trends between 1994 and 2020. During that time, 1,788 new residential structures (69 percent of all construction) were built, with a large concentration along waterfront areas. Another trend in development, which Frantz suggests could be unique in the United States, are the 254 new farmsteads, each including houses and agriculture-related buildings, the team identified. They alone account for 10 percent of all new development in the watershed. Other new construction includes: commercial (9 percent); institutional (5 percent); industrial (4 percent); wineries, breweries, etc. (3 percent); and multi-family residential (2 percent).

Consultants used additional data on precipitation, water quality, and land use to develop a model that quantifies sediment and nutrient runoff into downstream tributaries and lakes as a function of land use. Results are consistent with the composition of the landscape itself, with croplands, the most common land use type in the watershed, associated with the highest proportion of total phosphorous loading to the lakes. Croplands were followed by, in descending order, hay and pasture, forest and wetlands, developed land, and viticulture. Additional quantified sources included the 4,308 septic systems within 250 feet of a delineated waterbody, and regulated point sources such as wastewater treatment plants.

Seneca Lake Watershed Steward Ian Smith explains the model provides the best estimate of watershed loadings and will help the group prioritize actions to reduce loading. Additional data could increase model performance and subsequently improve management, he adds.

Recommendations proposed for improvements will include a variety of best practices for agricultural sources, such as cover crops, erosion control, manure storage, riparian buffers, educational workshops, and economic incentives. Other recommendations will include the use of conservation easements, stream restoration, water retention, economic incentives, green infrastructure, ditch management, septic system replacement, expansion of public wastewater systems, and universal watershed rules and regulations, among other things.

Members of the public contributed additional detailed recommendations to be incorporated into the draft plan that will be submitted to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in December. The completed draft document will then be presented at 10 a.m. Feb. 3 on a virtual platform, giving the public a final opportunity to comment. The final, approved 9E plan will be unveiled at 6 p.m. April 25 at the 10th Annual Land Use Leadership Alliance (LULA) training program in the Yates County Office Building. That meeting will include a discussion of the recommendations and projects.

The project is sponsored with funding provided by the New York State Department of State under Title 11 of the Environmental Protection Fund. Additional funding is provided by Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization, Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, Keuka Watershed Improvement Cooperative, Keuka Lake Association, The Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Seneca County, Schuyler County, Ontario County, Yates County, Steuben County, and Corning Inc.

The Seneca-Keuka Watershed Partnership Executive Committee includes Mark Venuti (Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization), Dan Corbett (Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association), Steve Butchko (Keuka Watershed Improvement Cooperative), and Mark Morris (Keuka Lake Association) with Advisors Lisa Cleckner (Finger Lakes Institute), Ian Smith (Seneca Lake Watershed Steward), Colby Petersen (Keuka Watershed Manager) and Administrator Betsy Landre (Ontario County Planning Dept.) For more information about the Seneca-Keuka Watershed Partnership contact Ian Smith at 315-781-4559 or, or Colby Petersen at 315-536-5188 or