Finger Lakes Land Trust eyes funding for Skaneateles Lake conservation in region-wide report

The Hinchcliff Family Nature Preserve in Spafford, which overlooks Skaneateles Lake, contains 206 acres of protected land and a 1.4-mile hiking trail, and it is part of the Finger Lakes Land Trust's greenbelt around the lake.

The Journal file

With increasing threats from development and invasive species to Skaneateles Lake and the 10 other Finger Lakes, the Finger Lakes Land Trust hopes to steer a mixture of public and private funding toward protecting the bodies of water synonymous with the region.

The Ithaca-based group recently released "Lakes, Farms, & Forests Forever," a report that lays out seven specific goals totaling a projected $100 million investment to address threats to the region's land and water resources, drinking water supplies and tourism economy.

Two of those goals specifically target Skaneateles Lake in terms of protecting one of two unfiltered drinking water supplies in the state and enhancing public access around the 35 miles of shoreline.

"We were aware of some increasing threats to the region, specifically the increasing instances of toxic algae outbreaks that have not yet happened in Skaneateles but have been in Owasco and other lakes," Land Trust Executive Director Andrew Zepp said, noting sprawling development along the Routes 5 and 20 corridor in the northern part of the Finger Lakes region poses more of a threat to Skaneateles Lake than invasive species.

In the case of development pressures, Zepp said Skaneateles and other lakes are seeing some of the state's best farmland around them giving way to developments that are eroding the agricultural land base and negatively affecting the scenery the region provides.

He also noted the state government appropriated a record amount of funding for the Environmental Protection Fund, but that money has not been directed toward the Finger Lakes.

"We need to make the case for the region," Zepp said, pointing to the purpose of the report. "We're hoping that it includes both public funding from the state and federal governments as well as private funding."

One goal laid out in the report involves resuming Syracuse's conservation easement purchase program within the Skaneateles Lake watershed. Along with the Delaware Water Gap in New York City, the lake provides one of two unfiltered municipal drinking water supplies in the state.

As part of its filtration waiver, the Syracuse Department of Water must commit to conservation programs to ensure water quality, Zepp said, and the city secured around 800 acres in conversation easements before shifting those funds into other conservation measures.

"With development pressures increasing, we see the need to resume this program to secure sensitive lands around the watershed because the health of the lake clearly depends on the health of the surrounding land," Zepp said

The report calls for $10 million in spending on the conservation easement purchase program.

The second goal includes making targeted investments to enhance public access in four priority projects identified in the state's Open Space Plan, one of which is the south end of Skaneateles Lake.

Zepp noted the two goals are complementary in that Syracuse has long focused its efforts on the northern half of the lake closest to its water intake in the village of Skaneateles, while the Land Trust has long focused on the southern half to create a greenbelt of nature preserves — such as the Hinchcliff Family Nature Preserve in Spafford — around the south end.

"The hope is that this will continue, and we can not only conserve these lands but make them accessible for recreation and create a trail system that would connect state Route 41 to state Route 41A and potentially go onward to the Otisco Lake watershed as well," Zepp said.

The report calls for $20 million to complete all four projects, which include the Canandaigua Skyline Trail, Ithaca's Emerald Necklace and the Chemung River Greenbelt.

Compared to some of the other Finger Lakes, he said, Skaneateles Lake has been able to maintain higher water quality standards, due in part to Syracuse's investment in its programs.

"The concern is, looking forward, will that be sufficient?" he said. "We think some additional action is needed."

Zepp said development is the great threat facing the north end of the lake, not so much imminently in the form of one large subdivision but over time and parcel by parcel resulting in the loss of farmland and natural areas.

"We're not opposed to development," he said. "It's just how that it happens and to ensure that we're siting it in the right locations and making sure that it's done in a way that maintains water quality in these sensitive areas."

Overall, Zepp said the report is meant to spark a conversation and spur some action to address the challenges facing the Finger Lakes and their watersheds.

He said the Land Trust believes that due to climate change, the area is having more intense rain events that result in more runoff into the lake that degrades water quality over time.

At the same time, Zepp said, the report lays out strategies that are known to work when it comes to protecting water quality, such as preserving buffer areas around streams and retiring them from crop production.

"We need the funding to do that," he said. "Part of this is making the case that this is a sound investment for our region, for quality of life but also for a $2 billion tourism economy and a $1 billion agriculture economy. These are sound investments in some of these demonstrated programs that work."

Journal Editor Jonathan Monfiletto can be reached at jonathan.monfiletto@lee.net or (315) 283-1615. Follow him on Twitter @WOC_Monfiletto.

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