Anyone who lives in the Owasco Lake Watershed is aware there are changes happening with our water. Climate change, increasing water temperatures, violent rain events, harmful algal blooms (HABs), invasive species, and detrimental land use all combine to form a kind of “Perfect Storm”. This threatens the water that tens of thousands of us drink and where we swim, boat, fish, or just sit on the shore and enjoy.
Developing a resilient response that ensures a healthy future for our lake and watershed is central to the Owasco Watershed Lake Association’s (OWLA) mission. With scientific knowledge, community-responsive outreach programs, and effective partnerships, we are leading our watershed forward in challenging times. Together with other local stakeholders OWLA is taking action to improve the future health of our lake.
Governor Hochul, in her recent State of the State address specifically mentioned the need to protect the eastern Finger Lakes from harmful algal blooms, or HABs. The governor’s commitment to invest in the Eastern Finger Lakes Coalition of Soil and Water Conservation Districts is hopeful. This investment in the SWCDs will build professional capacity and accelerate agricultural and resiliency-related projects. This capital infusion will provide support for farmers to implement best practices such as investing in more cover crops, improving culverts, reducing runoff, and other initiatives to improve soil health and reduce impairments to water quality.
OWLA’s mission for more than 35 years has been to engage in ongoing advocacy for the long-term health of Owasco Lake and the watershed. One strategy is to raise awareness of the importance of appropriate laws and public policies that result in measurable water quality improvements in the lake and watershed. The recent concern over the NYS Department of Health’s response to the proposed Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations needs to be addressed.
The process to create updated and more protective rules and regulations for the Owasco Lake watershed started in the Spring of 2017. Over the next two years, the committee of volunteers, including farmers, water consumers, and other stakeholders interested in the health of Owasco Lake, met numerous times and developed a core model of updated rules and regulations for our watershed. Several community meetings followed with much public input and compromise. In the Fall of 2020, after following the procedure outlined by the NYS Department of Health, this community submitted updated Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations. In response, we have received a draft notice from NYS Department of Health that weakens rather than strengthens our protection.
The NYS Department of Health has said that it has been stripped of authority to create nutrient management regulations for Owasco Lake by the Legislature. Specifically, the Department says that when lawmakers established the Agricultural Environmental Management program, they intended to make nutrient management on farms the sole responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Markets. The statute does not state that.
Over the past few months, many in the community have been discussing the NYS Department of Health’s position on the proposed Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations. The City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco, and OWLA, with the requested support of Earthjustice have petitioned through the New York State Supreme Court of Cayuga County for a judgement under Article 78 of the NY Civil Practice Law and Rules. This landmark Article 78 petition seeks to clarify that the NYS Department of Health does indeed have the right to regulate nutrient management practices in the Owasco Lake Watershed.
The mission statement for the NYS Department of Health is: We protect, improve, and promote the health, productivity, and wellbeing of all New Yorkers. This is the agency that should be the one deciding new Rules and Regulations for every watershed which provides drinking water to NYS communities. The NYS constitution guarantees that all New Yorkers have a right to clean water and a healthful environment.
It is the hope of the OWLA Board of Directors that in bringing this petition, there will be clarification in interpreting NYS Public Health Law. We encourage all NYS watershed advocates to support our efforts.
SAVE the Dates:
Virtual February Public Forum: What Does OWLA Do? Wednesday, February 7, 2024, 7pm. OWLA board members will lead discussions about our programs monitoring for HABs, reducing runoff into the lake by protecting watershed-critical hemlock trees from HWA, funding roadside ditch remediation projects and educating the next generation about the Owasco Lake watershed. Register for this free event at www.owla.org .
Bob Brower Scientific Symposium in Plain English, Saturday, March 9, 2024, 9am-noon at the Auburn Public Theatre. 2024’s Theme: OUR LAKE, OUR LEGACY. We all need to be watershed aware…aware of the many human activities that negatively affect water quality in Owasco Lake. For more information and to register for this free event go to: www.owla.org .
Ann M. Robson
OWLA Board President