I grew up in Auburn, and have been gone for 40 years with visits in between. Last summer, my Southern California-bred husband and I did something I never thought we would do — we moved back to the area.
Growing up in Auburn in the 1970s, I spent my summers having family picnics at Emerson Park, riding my bicycle down Owasco Road to spend the day swimming at the lake, and as a teenager, “socializing” during the evenings with other kids at “the lake." Owasco Lake was clean and fun and a bright spot in a teenager’s otherwise boring (insert eye roll) hometown. But that time period was also a time of declining economic activity in the Auburn area. Factories were reducing shifts and moving to sunnier locales. Sure, summers were grand, but I wanted out of the area. I went away to college and moved to many states as I pursued my career.
Most recently, my husband and I had been living and working in Northern California for nearly 30 years. We would come back to Auburn for big visits every two or three years (always in the summer). Our daughter loved our visits and thought coming back to Auburn was amazing. Her opinion of the area humored me, because it was just my hometown. Thanks to incredibly generous relatives who housed us on the lake during those visits, the difference in our views comes from her Owasco Lake experience. I have memories of her fishing off the dock, wading with a family of ducks, and noting how clear the water was. We swam, we boated, we went tubing, and I told her stories of the “H-Man." She saw the area at its best.
Dropping in every few years for visits, we watched the area as it struggled with the loss of jobs through the last recession and then rebounded. Somewhere along the way I heard about these newly invasive zebra mussels. Sure enough, the next time we visited, the lake had changed. We couldn’t go in the lake at times because there was a blue-green substance floating on the top of the water. We learned that these were algae blooms, and that in many cases they were toxic to humans. These harmful algal blooms, or HABs, were the most recent sign of a lake under stress.
Then, in 2019, we started to plan our retirement. We sold our beloved house in California and moved back here last summer. We’re busy settling into our new home in Owasco and doing it all while negotiating a pandemic. Once we bought the myriad clothing and equipment that we believed we needed to survive the impending winter, my husband turned his focus to learning about the area. One day, he asked why that beautiful park on the lake (Emerson Park) doesn’t seem to be utilized to a large degree. I noticed it, too. Sure, there were people walking around the park, getting their exercise on the beautiful new river walk, and a few folks barbecuing. But I remembered the place to be crowded with teenagers sunning on the beach, families filling the picnic areas, and children playing on the playground (and that awesome rocket slide).
So, I asked all my relatives and others why Emerson Park seems to be underutilized. I learned that people still use the park, but not so much as a beach. The algal blooms had taken that away. Such a loss.
This area has seen an increase in interest in recent years because of its natural and historic beauty, and the lake is a key contributor to its lure. Over the last few years, I have noticed many new businesses and a renewed interest in downtown Auburn. But environmental problems eventually affect the economic viability of an area. Rebounding from the economic damage of the pandemic will only be more complicated if our beautiful lake continues to struggle. That is why I researched and joined the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, or OWLA.
OWLA is a group of volunteers implementing research and mitigation projects to address the problem. The problem is vast, but it won’t improve unless we take steps now. We don’t know how long it will take to see the improvements, but OWLA and other organizations are laying the important groundwork now.
You are invited to toast Owasco Lake at the OWLA Virtual Cocktail Party at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 2. The Springside Inn has generously agreed to host this event and provide a grab-and-go cocktail and snack. Tickets will be available on the OWLA website in May. For more information, please visit owla.org.
Carol Stanzak Sutkus is a member of the Owasco Watershed Lake Association. For more information, or to join OWLA, visit owla.org.