Ian Smith, Seneca Lake Watershed Steward, has only been on the job for a few months but says he is learning more each day about the role and about the lake he has been tasked with overseeing.

“It’s a pretty broad topic, but basically anything related to water quality concerns around the lake is my focus,” Smith explained. “It’s also pretty new, as far as the position is concerned, so that part isn’t completely defined yet.”

He said keeping an eye on any water quality concerns, especially those voiced by local residents and stakeholders, is a primary responsibility of the job. “It’s also about finding solutions or finding ways to address these issues as they develop,” Smith continued, speaking to the evolution of many of these issues related to the environment or water quality.

That said, taking care of Seneca Lake is a difficult job and one that involves a lot of different people and perspectives. Beyond the scope of different economies that are active in the rural Finger Lakes, especially the area around Seneca Lake, there are dozens of municipalities and stakeholders in play.

“The scale is huge,” he explained, speaking to the size and scope of Seneca Lake. “It’s a challenge. Forty municipalities, approximately 38 miles of lake, and more than 70 miles of shoreline. It’s a large space to get a handle on, and it’s not just the geographical scope. It’s the sort of landscape scope.”

Seneca Lake has cities like Geneva at the north end, with plenty of pavement and large areas dominated by agriculture, and that creates a lot of concerns for those who live around all parts of Seneca Lake. 

Smith said he is only one person, though, and trying to address everything at once would be a bad way to approach his responsibility. “You try to balance short- and long-term goals, creating a lot of planning, and then allow the great activist groups out there to help in various ways.”

He said the region is fortunate to have so many different community organizations and agencies working in the same direction. “We’ve been working extensively this summer on the ‘Nine Element Plan,’” Smith continued, noting that this has been the region’s best, broadest effort to address long-term water quality on Seneca Lake.

“That project will guide what we do for the next decade, and beyond,” Smith continued. He said that responding to various bulletins posted by state and federal agencies is also important. “That’s what residents want and need a better understanding of,” he said. “The day-to-day changes that are happening and updates that are being provided by state agencies and leaders.

“The ‘Nine Element Plan’ is a framework developed by the EPA that addresses these nine elements that have been identified as being successful to a watershed,” he explained, touting its importance for a lake like Seneca, which is relied on by many for drinking water. “So if our goal is some level of environmental protection effort that sustains water quality but allows for some level of habitation, it’ll quantify that and develop a framework for how to get to that end point.”

It is a process, and unlike past watershed management systems it’s one that is more technical. Smith said it is a plan that can bring more accountability into the fold, especially as different actors and stakeholders get involved in the process of “managing” and protecting the lake.

The Nine Element Plan is also said to be one that allows for emotion to be drawn out of decision making. “It sets less emotional justifications for actions, and taking the emotion out of some of theses issues could help with management and execution.”

Smith said that it won’t eliminate conflicts between user groups of the lake, but the plan will be technical enough to provide sustained accountability throughout the process of studying and managing the body. It is a peculiar situation, since he understands that the emotional connection to Seneca Lake is precisely what has driven so many community actors to get involved, and help with testing, activism, and more. 

Harmful Algal Blooms, or HABs, are still the talk of the lake, though. Smith admits that while there are dozens of other issues impacting lake life, the one most people hear about and have a basic understanding of are harmful algal blooms.

State and local leaders are working hard to understand HABs, despite the difficulty. “People have a lot of questions about HABs, but it’s still something that we’re trying to understand,” Smith said. “At this point, we know there’s an agricultural component, and thankfully the state is investing money into understanding these blooms, but we don’t know enough yet to take solid action, or develop a good plan.”

He works to answer questions and quell concerns as they arise but remains optimistic about the lake’s future. One of the big issues he sees in the future, which has less to do with day-to-day maintenance and more to do with long-term vision, is the lake’s classification.

“Finding balance in ‘public resource’ has to be a priority,” Smith concluded. Understanding that classification and finding the right classification for lakes like Seneca in the future is a big part of the long-term plan to keep the lake healthy.


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