Building Coalitions to Protect Seneca Lake

Building Coalitions to Protect Seneca Lake

By Marion E. Balyszak, Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, Inc.

Seneca Lake is the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes in New York State and is part of a largely rural watershed, draining land in five counties. The Watershed includes one city, 11 villages, and 28 towns, all within the Great Lakes Basin. In 1995, Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, Inc. (Waters Association) determined that concerns about water quality, stemming from land use in the five counties, supported the development of a management plan to preserve water quality. The process of working on the Plan has taken the Waters Association from a lakeshore property owners’ association to a Watershed Association. Developing a working group partnership of these agencies in 1996, known as Seneca Lake Area Partners in Five Counties (Partners), fostered the beginning of a management process. The Partners were able to draw on successes in other New York watersheds. The project goal, supported in part by GLAHNF funds during 1999 and 2000, was to initiate and strengthen public and municipal government involvement in watershed management

What have been the results of your efforts to date?

· Completion of a State of the Watershed Report “Setting A Course for Seneca Lake” in 1999. (The document was printed in 2000 outlining the state of watershed health, potential sources of pollution, data gaps, and some next steps. The report was distributed to all watershed agencies and 40 municipalities.)

· Individual presentations on the watershed report were made to each of the forty municipal governments in the watershed. Each municipal government was asked to sign a “Call for Cooperation”, and respond to a survey indicating their top water quality concerns/priorities on which the watershed project could base its next steps. To date 39 of 40 municipal governments have signed a “Call for Cooperation” and survey responses outlined management by building water quality advocacy. The watershed management process has solidified the organization’s mission to build the decision-making capacities within its watershed through the direct application of solid research data on water quality issues and land use practices.

The project has (1) strengthened local partnerships and stakeholder relationships, (2) built the Association’s ability to comment/provide input on watershed actions based on environmental concerns, (3) fostered a better sense of environmental awareness and the relationship of land use to water quality, and (4) built the Association’s presence in the community as an environmental protection organization.

We completed a publication, Setting A Course for Seneca Lake, and 39 of 40 municipal governments have now signed “Calls for Cooperation,” endorsing the watershed project. Nineteen top water quality concerns have been identified on which next management steps and advocacy efforts are being based.

· A Watershed Summit for Municipal Government Representatives was held in September 2000 that provided additional information on watershed health, and discussed the results of the survey. Additional meetings were held on on-site wastewater management. Follow-up efforts are currently addressing the top concerns outlined by municipal governments, focusing special attention on on-site wastewater (septic systems) management, agriculture, pesticides and stormwater issues (roadbank, streambank, development issues).

The information in the report has also been utilized to gain a large number of implementation grants from state and federal funding sources to support:

· Over $2 million in Bond Act/Environmental Protection funding for agricultural initiatives.

· Nearly $1 million has been received for roadbank stabilization and streambank stabilization projects.

What do you consider the key to your success?

The following contributed to the success of this process:

· Patience, knowing that it will take a lot of time to develop a process that is successful and covers all bases for such a large watershed with such diverse interests.

· Success is not possible with only a single group involved. Willingness of SLAP-5 partners and resident stakeholders to collaborate is key.

· A solid collaborative process (Partners) that with core participation has allowed the watershed project to continue with and without a steady stream of funding.

· Collective efforts of Partners to garner funding to support water quality efforts.

· Ability of Partners to serve as a key liaison for the watershed project within their local communities. It is easier to advocate watershed protection efforts as familiar faces meeting within their localities.

· Subwatershed framework for recommendations will be key to sustaining stakeholder commitment to ongoing preventative measures and remedial efforts within such a large watershed because priorities set for smaller areas will be more tangible to each municipality or groups of municipalities in the same areas.

· Partners willingness to work together and support/endorse efforts of one another, especially as it relates to ongoing funding efforts. Collaborators have been willing to come to the table with or without specific funding.

· The expertise of watershed partners who had already experienced a process with overlapping watersheds of Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes.

· The visibility of so many implementation projects even while the planning process was working toward developing specific management recommendations.

How would you outline the steps you took to organize your project in order to advise another group working on a similar project?

The watershed management process for Seneca Lake was built on the framework of neighboring watersheds (Canandaigua and Keuka Lakes), but recognized early on that the size of this watershed would require some flexibility in efforts to gain stakeholder involvement. Taking cues from other watersheds streamlines a process instead of trying to reinvent a process. While there are good models to follow, be flexible in adapting your process to the specific needs/characteristics of the watershed you are working in and be adaptive. Listen to your stakeholders and to the needs you see within your watershed – not the prescribed process.

What have the effects of this effort been on your organization’s work?

The process has taken Waters Association from a lakeshore property owners’ association to a watershed association. It has built its capacity to develop significant research data in collaboration with a wide number of agencies. Waters Association chairs the Partners and coordinates day-to-day efforts for the watershed planning process. The Waters Association has built relationships with the public, municipal governments, local, state, and federal agencies. The watershed management process has solidified the organization’s mission to build the decision-making capacities within its watershed through the direct application of solid research data on water quality issues and land use practices.

How has the project affected your community?

It has strengthened local partnerships and stakeholder relationships, built the association’s ability to comment/provide input on watershed actions based on environmental concerns, fostered a better sense of environmental awareness and the relationship of land use to water quality, and built the association’s presence in the community as an environmental protection agency vs. a private “club” or organization of more limited nature.

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

· The large size of this watershed is an ongoing challenge for watershed management.

· The fact that the watershed process for Seneca Lake was initiated during the latter phase of funding prioritizing planning efforts but changed to a focus on implementation efforts. This created a need to initiate good implementation projects even while management recommendations were being formulated.

· Funding remains an ongoing challenge, especially for the lake association as it has devoted most of its operating funds to staff time and related support to the watershed project.

How many people were involved?

(a) Initially: The Waters Association began the watershed process with an early report in 1995, but in 1996 initiated the formation of Seneca Lake Area Partners in Five Counties as the working group to develop management practices in the watershed.

(b) Finally: Partners is comprised of about fifty watershed-based agencies with support from state and federal environmental agencies. The municipal governments supporting the watershed process involve forty municipalities comprised of 320 representatives. The watershed project has been supplemented by thousands of people-hours contributed by the various agencies and resident stakeholders who have partnered with the Partners.

In addition, significant in-kind contributions have been made in travel, supplies, and materials as well as contributions of equipment. Water quality monitoring for the lake and tributaries is contributed annually in the amount of $30,000-50,000 through Hobart & William Smith Colleges Department of Geoscience, along with its sustained source of interns to assist with the project.

How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?

During research and data gatherings stages for the watershed report, public involvement was generated through a series of public meetings to outline the watershed project and gauge public water quality concerns. This was supplemented by public programs on Understanding The Seneca Lake Watershed, municipal government presentations on various aspects of the watershed project, a watershed summit, public programs including a Home-A-Syst and a Protected Shores program, educational publications directly mailed to stakeholders, and a quarterly newsletter, Lakewatch.

How was public education a component of your program?

Education to support decision-making and understanding of watershed health and key watershed concerns remains important to this ongoing process.

What was the primary means of communication?

Public meetings, public educational programs centered on understanding watershed characteristics and water quality concerns, surveys (resident, agricultural, municipal government representatives, lakeshore property owners); news articles, radio talk shows, direct presentations to water quality committees, municipal governments, community organizations, schools, universities, conferences, publications such as Lakewatch newsletter, special publications, direct mail sharing of publications and information; and bi-monthly meetings of Partners with monthly meetings of technical and educational subcommittees during watershed report process.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into (total project cost, public vs. private financing, specific sources, etc.)?

Support to this effort has been drawn from diverse funding resources that include state and federal funding, private foundations, corporate support and support through members of the Waters Association. While the lake association’s annual operating budget of about $40,000 has been directed toward supporting this project through staff time and resource/office support, the collaborative nature of the Partners working together to secure available funding through its various member agencies has garnered nearly $4 million (by the end of 2002) to support watershed protection. Funding from GLAHNF has provided funds critical to the necessary education and outreach on water quality issues and concerns that is building advocacy for water quality preservation in a large watershed.

Project funding allowed for the expansion of existing programs and information exchanges about the watershed project and data acquired on the current health of Seneca Lake. Funding from GLAHNF has also been instrumental in generating additional funds to support this planning process, developing the watershed report and generating implementation projects.

What level and types of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect/assist your efforts?

Media exposure in newspaper articles and interviews, radio broadcasts, and in other specialty publications featuring aspects of the watershed project.

Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, Inc.
Marion E. Balyszak
P.O. Box 247
Geneva, NY 14456
315-789-3052 315-789-8799 (fax)

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.