The Cayuga Lake Watershed Restoration & Protection Plan

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Tompkins Weekly     2-12-18

By Hilary Lambert

It is a challenge to unify the administratively complex Cayuga Lake watershed for restoration, conservation, and protection. This 785-square mile watershed includes:

• Three counties on the lakeshore (Cayuga, Seneca, and Tompkins) – and smaller upland portions of three more (Cortland, Tioga, and Schuyler).
• 45 municipalities (cities, towns, and villages).
• Numerous regional, state and federal agencies.
• Development pressures that pull the south end toward the Southern Tier and New York City; and the north end toward Syracuse, Rochester, and Lake Ontario.

Communities across the watershed enhance economic vitality while protecting the environment by working together. The Cayuga Lake Watershed Intermunicipal Organization (IO) first developed a collaborative management plan and planning process for the Cayuga Lake watershed in the late 1990s. Its partners included the watershed’s 45 municipalities and county, state and federal agencies. The original Restoration & Protection Plan was issued in 2001 and can be viewed at the IO’s website, with the accompanying encyclopedic Watershed Characterization.

New watershed challenges have arisen since 2001

Since the first Plan was issued in 2001, challenges have arisen that negatively affect water quality and quantity and the seemingly modest goal of a sustainable, healthy watershed.

These include climate change and extreme weather, resulting in the need for farmers and other producers to adapt; shifting patterns and seasons for wildlife, birds, tree species, other plants and biota; and shifting political priorities that stifle our ability to protect natural resources.

These changes affect human use and enjoyment of land and water and bring with them new hazards, including invasive species, Harmful Algal Blooms, large-scale energy development, drought, and emerging contaminants.

The surface water resources of the Cayuga Lake Watershed include wetlands, streams, springs, waterfalls, creeks and the lake itself. The area is also rich in groundwater resources. These waters are used for drinking, farming, wine-making, cheeses, beers, liquors; recreation; industrial uses and wastewater treatment; home and business uses; natural habitat for plants and animals; to replenish depletion due to pollution, drought and overuse; ecosystem functions, and other uses.

All watershed residents, visitors, businesses, and municipalities share and benefit from these water resources. All share the responsibility of protecting them.

Updating the Plan: A public process, 2015-2017

In 2015-2017, thanks to a Town of Ithaca-sponsored state grant, the IO and Cayuga Lake Watershed Network (Network) joined forces to update the plan, drawing in hundreds of people, dozens of agencies, and numerous experts to update the plan and its recommendations for action to protect our water resources. The 2017 Plan can be viewed at the Network’s website under the “Watershed” heading

The 2017 goals of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Restoration and Protection Plan (RPP):

To inspire, to prioritize actions and strategies, and to bring about legislative change vital to protecting and preserving Cayuga Lake and its watershed. By supporting this plan, the Intermunicipal Organization (IO), municipalities, farmers, residents, private and public partners, and watershed stakeholder nonprofit organizations can build a productive economy which sustains a healthy watershed.

Next-steps action

A grant has been awarded to the IO and Town of Ithaca by the NYS Department of State, supporting an IO staffer to develop water-protective, state-fundable proposals with engaged municipalities. Under the leadership of IO Chair Tee-Ann Hunter of Ithaca, a Watershed Summit is planned for spring 2018, bringing together municipal officials, public works departments, and agencies from around Cayuga Lake to encourage involvement with the IO and new grant funding opportunities.

The new Plan is an excellent source for answering questions you may have about the lake and its creeks. Check out the Table of Contents and peruse such topics as Agriculture, Stormwater, Wastewater, and Water Quality Education, among others.

Cooperation between municipalities and active citizen participation are critical factors for the success of the new Plan, and for the future good health of our lake, creeks, streams, springs, waterfalls, and wetlands.

Hilary Lambert is the Steward and Executive Director of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network

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