Villages, towns and cities around Seneca Lake now have a fulltime advocate for the management of their water supply’s health and longevity.
As the Seneca Watershed Steward, Ian Smith will be coordinating regional efforts to preserve Seneca Lake as a clean source of water. Hired in early 2019, Smith reports to the executive committee of the Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization (SWIO), the regional body covering the 40 municipalities in five counties that span the Seneca Lake watershed. Smith is based at Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Finger Lakes Institute (FLI), under the supervision of FLI Director Lisa Cleckner.
“People use the lake for recreation and drinking water, so first and foremost we want to protect what’s already functioning and highly valuable,” says Smith, who hopes “to take the framework of on-the-ground projects to get ahead of the game” on issues like invasive species, nutrient loading and algal blooms.
As watershed steward, Smith is tasked with developing expertise in Seneca Lake’s watershed challenges and providing guidance to steer the programming and actions of SWIO. Under this umbrella, his mandate includes updating and maintaining watershed quality data and water quality improvement projects; helping implement a Nine-Element Watershed Plan for the Seneca Lake watershed; organizing and executing programs to support SWIO plans; improving public understanding of Seneca watershed issues; and cultivating funding options for such initiatives.
Smith’s position is supported through state funds earmarked for the Town of Geneva as part of a wider $110 million effort to preserve New York drinking water at its sources through lake and watershed conservation, including protection against pollution and invasive species.
State Senator Pam Helming, who represents Geneva and helped secure that funding, notes that “the Finger Lakes as a whole, and specifically Seneca Lake, have experienced significant amounts of harmful algal blooms and toxic blue-green algae in recent years. These contaminants threaten municipal water systems and homeowners that use Seneca Lake as their main source of water. This Seneca Lake Watershed Steward will combat this by bringing together the Town of Geneva, other communities, and stakeholders along Seneca Lake to address water quality challenges through a coordinated, collaborative effort. I am grateful that we were able to secure the critically important funding for this position in last year’s state budget, and I look forward to working with the incoming watershed manager. Working together as a community, we can safeguard our lakes and enhance them for generations to come.”
“We tired to get funding for two years and then Senator Helming, knowing that we needed a watershed steward for Seneca Lake, was able to get it and make this a reality,” says Geneva Town Supervisor Mark Venuti, a member of the SWIO executive board. “We had more than 30 people apply for the job. Ian was our first choice, and we’re looking forward to working with him and helping SWIO make a significant impact for the betterment of the lake and region.”
Smith, who has worked on water quality issues in West Virginia coal country, Maryland Mennonite communities and the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, will coordinate among the SWIO, individual Finger Lakes municipal groups, area farmers and organizations like the Finger Lakes Land Trust and Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association. The key, he says, is “building bridges so people can figure out what everyone is doing. We have all these different groups heavily invested and doing good work, so now amplifying its impact through communication and coordination is the next step; that will ultimately get us to the watershed scale improvements we are looking for.”
Under memorandum of understanding, members of the SWIO are working toward the protection and improvement of Seneca Lake’s water and surrounding bodies and tributaries. (The Seneca Lake watershed includes all of Keuka Lake’s watershed.) The SWIO includes an appointed member from each municipality who participate in meetings and report plans and actions to their local government. Ex officio membership extends to regional planning board members, county Soil and Water Conservation District members, academic institutions including Hobart and William Smith Colleges and local water quality interest groups.
The SWIO meets next on Tuesday, April 30 at 7 p.m. The meeting, which is open to the public, will be held in the County Auditorium of the Yates County Building, 417 Liberty Street, Penn Yan.