OWASCO — The $600,000 grant the state allocated in 2015's legislative budget for research and projects around Owasco Lake's harmful algal blooms has so far helped implement three projects to reduce nutrient loading in the watershed.
Called water and sediment control basins, the projects were installed this year on farmland that crop farmer Jim Sierzenga owns or rents for his corn, wheat, alfalfa and soybeans. The fields come up right to Sucker Brook in the town of Owasco, and in the past, Sierzenga said heavy storms would cause water to flow right across the top, carrying silt and nutrients into the stream.
"The main object for what they call a water and sediment control basin, they're meant to capture surface water that flows through the landscape at a certain site," said Jason Cuddeback with the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District. "Both sites, there was quite a lot of erosion, so there was a lot of surface erosion that would accumulate and then get to Sucker Brook tributary, there to Owasco, which is obviously not where you want it to go."
Sierzenga said the newly installed projects are working. With the many heavy rain events this summer, they had plenty of opportunity to be tested.
Instead of the rain washing across his field, the water drains into the slope of a burm, collecting there and draining into a field tile buried underneath the ground. While Sierzenga said there's debate over how beneficial field tiles are for the environment, he said he thinks they work, keeping a large amount of water from falling in sheets across the land.
Sierzenga added his own touch to the project, putting up a wire fence around the basin to prevent corn husks and large debris from clogging it.
About $386,000 of the $600,000 has been allocated for specific projects in the watershed. The three basins installed cost about $19,200. The way the grant funding was set up, however, the landowner is responsible for 25 percent of the project cost, and the grant covers 75 percent.
Bob Brower, president of the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, has been hired to manage the project work and is being paid part of that grant funding to do so. He and Cayuga County Soil and Water District Executive Director Doug Kierst have expressed frustration at some water quality meetings that not all landowners, especially non-farmers, want to financially contribute to some of these nutrient controlling projects. Sierzenga said he had no problem contributing some funds. In fact, he said, he tries to tackle one project to better the watershed on his own dime each year. He was pleased to have some financial help for these ones.
"We are trying," he said. "Farmers are trying voluntary practices since I've been doing it. We've changed our farming practices tremendously for good...We can only do so much when you get two, three-inch rainfall events. It's hard to prevent everything."
Some of the land Sierzenga rents from Roderick Lawrence of Sennett. One of the control basins is on Lawrence's land, and he, too, said he was happy to help out the watershed. He said the practice actually helps his farm save topsoil, making his farming better, too.
"This summer we had some torrential rains," Lawrence said. "Some of the rain was two inches an hour, but I'm proud I did it. I really am. Plus, it made the lot better actually. I tell everybody it's worth doing. You're saving topsoil. It's for your own self. Yes, you're cutting down the pollution and like that, but if you're going to save the topsoil, and you're trying to make a living off of it, why not do it?"
Harry Wilson is familiar with the challenges of running for statewide office in New York.
In 2010, he was the Republican nominee for state comptroller. It was his first run for political office and his opponent was Democratic state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who had been appointed to the office three years prior.
On paper, the race was DiNapoli's to lose. Democrats hold a large enrollment advantage in New York, especially downstate. But Wilson, a corporate restructuring expert who served on President Barack Obama's task force to save the American automobile industry, overcame those odds and nearly won the race.
DiNapoli's margin of victory was over 200,000 votes, or four percentage points. It was the best performance by a Republican in a statewide race since George Pataki, a three-time GOP governor, won re-election in 2002.
Seven years later, Wilson is considering a run for another statewide office. He has been traveling around New York to gauge interest in his potential run for governor.
Wilson, 46, said in an interview with The Citizen that he's "seriously exploring" a gubernatorial bid. He plans to make a final decision by late fall.
"I really feel I can make a huge difference in the state," he said. "I've seen this set of problems before where you've had bad leadership and problems on the ground in company after company. I really that there's nothing in the state that's not fixable with better public leadership."
Wilson, who earned a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School, began his career as an investor at The Blackstone Group and Silver Point Capital, two leading financial firms. After his work on the Obama auto task force, he founded MAEVA Group, a corporate restructuring firm, in 2011.
MAEVA Group, according to Wilson's biography, "focuses primarily on investing in or acquiring companies undergoing major change, or advising companies going through similar operational or financial transformations, so that these companies can better compete and thrive in the future."
The main issue for Wilson is the state of New York's economy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who plans to seek a third term in 2018, has advanced several economic development initiatives during his seven-plus years in office. These programs have invested billions in the state's economy and created thousands of jobs.
But challenges, especially in upstate New York, remain. Even as the state has supported new economic development in the region, some businesses have left. Wilson blames overregulation and the state's tax system for its economic struggles.
Employers leaving New York is a problem. But Wilson also thinks there are few entrepreneurs willing to take the risks necessary to create a business in New York because of the regulatory and tax hurdles.
"I think that's very fixable, but it takes a lot of effort to fix it," he said. "It takes a fundamental change in the way that we operate state government. But that's exactly what I've done in my business career. I feel like I can really make a huge impact on the state by focusing on those issues."
To address the state's economic woes, Wilson believes the education system needs to be improved. He's a proponent of public schools. He and his wife attended public schools and his four daughters attend public schools in Westchester County. He called public schools "the lifeblood of the state."
However, he noted that there are public schools in some regions of the state that perform better than others.
"That's just robbing a generation of kids of opportunity," he said.
Another education-related issue is how the economy has changed, especially in the last two decades. The United States is transitioning from an industrial economy to a digital economy, Wilson said. This will result in some jobs, including many traditional blue-collar jobs, being eliminated. Even higher level jobs, such as accounting, could be automated.
Wilson doesn't think the state — and society as a whole — is prepared for those changes.
"I think the answer comes to education and training," he said. "I think we just need a much more flexible system that helps build skills."
One idea, which isn't new, is that college isn't for everybody. Technical schools and vocational training may be a better option for young people.
"That will be a better fit for their long-term goals and something that is critically necessary for the economy as a whole," Wilson said.
When Wilson discusses the economy and other issues, he sounds very much like someone who's running for governor. He admits that if his decision was based solely on the issues, he would have entered the race by now. But there are personal factors to consider.
As the founder and CEO of his own company, he's been successful. He said the firm has saved more than 50,000 jobs over the last six years. His work also gives him the flexibility to spend time with his family and attend his daughters' events.
In his interview and during a speech at a Cayuga County Republican Committee event over the summer, he said his family will be a major part of his decision-making process.
Another factor is the political reality for a Republican in New York. There are 3 million more active Democratic voters than Republicans, according to the state Board of Elections. That enrollment disadvantage could be enough for some GOP candidates to pass on the race.
But Wilson, who nearly pulled off the upset in a statewide race seven years ago, isn't fazed by those numbers.
"I think it's a surmountable challenge, particularly given some of the governor's failures," he said.