View across a river with fall-colored trees on a shoreline being reflected in the water.
Improving Water Quality The new parcel, located in the town of Locke, will help protect public water supplies and the overall health of the Owasco Lake watershed. © Olivia Green/TNC

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DEC and The Nature Conservancy Announce Acquisition of 203 Acres in Owasco Lake Watershed to Improve and Protect Water Quality

Purchase is latest step by DEC and TNC to prevent HABs and nonpoint source pollution from affecting drinking water and the health of the watershed

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) today announced the acquisition of a critical parcel in the Owasco Lake watershed that will help protect public water supplies and safeguard riparian buffers and wetlands. The acquisition of the Hirst parcel in the town of Locke, Cayuga County, is the first of several parcels to be purchased by TNC with funding from New York State’s Water Quality Improvement Program that specifically targets the protection of source waters.

“Governor Cuomo continues to make the protection of drinking water across New York State a top priority, and by working with partners like The Nature Conservancy and providing record funding to achieve our aggressive goals, we are making long-term investments that will help provide cleaner water far into the future,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. “TNC’s acquisition of the first of several parcels in the Owasco watershed using state water funding is helping create a healthier lake, protecting the water supply, reducing the potential for Harmful Algal Blooms, and continuing to contribute to the local economies dependent on quality recreational opportunities.”

“Owasco Lake is the source of drinking water for more than 50,000 people and a place where thousands of families swim, fish, boat, and explore nature year-round,” said Jim Howe, The Nature Conservancy’s Central and Western Director. “But Owasco, like many of the Finger Lakes, faces urgent water quality challenges. The strategic protection of these lands, which play a major role in safeguarding the lake, is an investment in the region’s health and quality of life.” 

Governor Cuomo continues to increase investments for clean water infrastructure projects, including the State's unprecedented $3.5 billion commitment to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to clean water. Along with support from the state's Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), the Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP) funds projects to improve water quality, reduce the potential for harmful algal blooms (HABs), and protect drinking water across the state. DEC has announced more than $37 million for 37 land acquisition projects to date. In addition to land acquisition projects for source water protection, WQIP grants are awarded for municipal wastewater treatment, nonagricultural nonpoint source abatement and control, salt storage, and aquatic habitat restoration.

In 2018, TNC was awarded a $1.1 million grant through the EPF’s WQIP to identify, protect, and restore parcels of land in the Owasco Lake watershed that have the most impact on the lake’s water quality. The Nature Conservancy scientists then set to work ranking all 3,000 land parcels in the watershed for attributes like wetlands and forested slopes with headwater streams that help prevent pollution from reaching the lake. The Hirst property ranked at the top in their assessment and cost $280,000 using a portion of the $1.1 million.

The Hirst parcel is one of several parcels under this WQIP investment that will help TNC take necessary and aggressive actions to protect the lake by reducing sediment and nutrient loading. At 203 acres, the property consists of vacant woodland and approximately 50 acres of freshwater forested/shrub wetlands with two seasonal streams. Both streams flow north into Dry Creek within Fillmore Glen State Park, where they feed the park’s natural swimming pool, then flow into the Owasco Inlet, the primary tributary to Owasco Lake. Once acquired by TNC, the land will not be developed, allowing its natural features to help protect public water supplies. TNC will convey the parcel to the New York State Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) to be added to Filmore Glen State Park.

“We look forward to acquiring this critical habitat for addition to Fillmore Glen State Park under our multi-year open space acquisition plan, as we evaluate its potential use for passive recreation, such as trails,” said State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid. “This property will further protect the quality of the creek that runs through our park, and its public swimming area, before feeding the Owasco Inlet, a critical tributary to the lake.”

Acquisition of the Hirst parcel builds upon the aggressive actions the State has already taken on Owasco Lake to reduce the frequency of HABs, which are a persistent challenge in the Finger Lakes and waterbodies statewide. In response, Governor Cuomo and DEC are taking nation-leading actions to prevent and mitigate these potentially toxic blooms by investing in infrastructure upgrades and new technology, a commitment particularly strong around Owasco Lake.

New York is implementing a two-fold approach combining watershed improvement strategies to prevent the formation of HABs with new, cutting-edge technologies that help us effectively remediate HABs when they occur. In 2017, the Governor committed $2 million to support major upgrades of advanced treatment technologies to ensure clean drinking water for the city of Auburn and town of Owasco. This comprehensive plan included installation of carbon treatment systems, and more than $2.7 million in subsequent investments have been made in wastewater infrastructure, watershed protection, and habitat restoration initiatives across the region.

Based on experiences at Owasco and other critical waterbodies, Governor Cuomo launched one of the most aggressive plans to combat HABs in the country. In 2018, DEC convened four regional summits to examine the causes of HABs and develop sustainable solutions to reduce algal blooms. DEC worked with State and local partners to develop and implement HABs Action Plans for 12 high priority waterbodies, including Owasco Lake. Since then, Governor Cuomo's HABs Initiative has provided an estimated $187 million for projects statewide to reduce the frequency of HABs.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.