Big investment needed over next decade to address dangers to region’s land and water, land trust says

A report released Wednesday by Finger Lakes Land Trust calls for an investment of $100 million over the next decade to address the threat of toxic algae and sprawling development on the region’s land and water resources.

"Lakes, Farms, and Forests Forever"— the title of the Land Trust’s report, is based on a year-long comprehensive assessment of the region’s natural resources coupled with input from 40 nonprofit organizations, county and regional planning departments, and government conservation agencies.

The report highlights ten priority conservation strategies for the region. It “emphasizes the need to address both excessive nutrient runoff into the region’s lakes and sprawling rural development that threatens farmland, vistas, water quality, and recreational resources,” according to a release from the Land Trust.

“The incidence of toxic algae outbreaks that threaten public drinking water supplies is increasing and is a particular cause for concern,” stated Wade Sarkis, president of the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association. “Excessive nutrient runoff is a big part of the problem. If we don’t address this issue, we risk harming our public drinking water supplies and negatively impacting the region’s $2 billion tourism economy.”

In September, the Cayuga County Health Department found toxins in treated water that Auburn and Owasco draw from Owasco Lake — a source of drinking water for a number of towns and the city of Auburn.

Owasco Lake was one of dozens of lakes and other waterways statewide plagued this summer by toxic algae. Seneca Lake suffered a toxic algae bloom for a second season, after experiencing its first bloom last summer. In Ontario County, Sandy Bottom beach on Honeoye Lake was shut down due to blue-green algae.

Climate change, causing a gradual uptick in temperature over time and more frequent extreme weather like harsh storms and this summer’s drought, is a major factor fueling algae. Other influences such as uncontrolled development contribute as well.

Canandaigua Lake experienced its first blue-green algae bloom last year. So far this year, tests show no sign of toxins. Kevin Olvany, Canandaigua Lake watershed program manager, said Wednesday isolated areas of algae have been seen along some shoreline areas this year, but water samples tested from Canandaigua Lake have shown no toxins and the lake is also seeing a good year for clarity. Monitoring and sample tests will continue, he said.

Olvany added that the drought has eliminated runoff from storms, which fuels algae growth from pollutants washing into the lake.

Although signs so far are good for Canandaigua Lake — a drinking water source for some 70,000 people — “it doesn’t guarantee that blue-green algae won’t start producing toxins in the future,” Olvany said. You should still avoid contact if you see a bloom, because blue-green algae can still present health impacts even if it is not producing the toxin, he said.

The Land Trust recommends launching a new region-wide effort to purchase perpetual stream buffers from farmers and also restore and construct wetlands that can filter out runoff before it reaches the lake. The organization advocates resuming a program to purchase conservation easements within the watershed of Skaneateles Lake — the unfiltered drinking water supply for the city of Syracuse.

To address rural sprawl threatening the region’s scenery, the Land Trust calls for increased funding for New York’s existing farmland protection program. It also calls for implementing of a program to identify and conserve the highest-quality vistas found along the region’s state highways and two state-designated Scenic Byways.

“All around Seneca Lake, the threat of sprawling rural development is real,” stated Marti Macinski, co-owner of Standing Stone Vineyards in Hector and a Land Trust board member. “The decisions we make today on what lands to protect, and what lands to develop, will have lasting implications. We must act now if we are going to save our best farmland and beautiful lake views.”

To expand outdoor recreation, the report calls for linking existing public lands in four focus areas as well as enhancing public access and interpretation of these areas. Public lands in the vicinity of the south ends of Canandaigua Lake and Skaneateles Lake are priorities. Also a priority is the Emerald Necklace (a greenbelt extending around Ithaca) and a stretch of the Chemung River between Elmira and Corning.

The Land Trust says it needs commitment of both public and private resources to tackle the plan.

“The region truly stands at a crossroads,” stated Andrew Zepp, the organization’s executive director. “While this may seem like an extraordinary investment to some people, there will be a greater public cost in the long run if we fail to act now.”

The Land Trust is beginning now to contact a variety of partners from public and private sectors to explore how to most effectively implement the report’s ten recommendations.

The report was made possible due to funds from the New York’s Environmental Protection Fund and the state Conservation Partnership Program, administered by the Land Trust Alliance. Additional funding came from members of the Finger Lakes Land Trust.

The Land Trust says by “working cooperatively with landowners and local communities, the Finger Lakes Land Trust has protected nearly 20,000 acres of our region’s undeveloped lakeshore, rugged gorges, rolling forest, and scenic farmland.”

The trust owns and manages a network of nature preserves that are open to the public and holds over 120 conservation easements that protect lands remaining in private ownership. It focuses on protecting critical habitat and lands that are important for water quality, connecting conserved lands, and keeping prime farmland in agriculture. The organization also provides programs to educate local governments, landowners, and local residents about conservation and the region’s unique natural resources.