A view of the Finger Lakes region in New York.
New Land to Help Water Quality The land is located along the Owasco Inlet, an important tributary to the above pictured Finger Lakes region. © Mat Levine / TNC


Protecting Land to Fight Harmful Algal Blooms

Gift of former farmland to benefit water quality in Owasco Lake

The Nature Conservancy is celebrating an exciting gift for the Finger Lakes region—87 acres of former farmland generously donated by the Dale C. Parmley Trust to help improve the quality of Owasco Lake. The land, which was actively farmed until this year, is located along the Owasco Inlet, the primary tributary to Owasco Lake, which accounts for over 60 percent of the surface water flow in the watershed.

Protecting important watershed lands—and looking at opportunities to restore critical natural functions on them—has been a priority of The Nature Conservancy in New York and partners, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Finger Lakes Land Trust and City of Auburn in recent years.

In 2018, The Nature Conservancy was awarded a $1.1 million grant through the New York State Environmental Protection Fund’s Water Quality Improvement Program. With this grant, the Conservancy has been working to identify, protect and restore parcels of land in the watershed that could make a difference for the lake’s water quality.

“Science and experience tell us that coupling land protection with other strategies, like restoring stream corridors to better absorb pollutants and expanding innovative soil health and water quality practices on farmlands, will help solve the problem of harmful algal blooms in this important body of water,” said Jim Howe, The Nature Conservancy’s Central and Western New York Chapter Director.

Although the exact causes of harmful algal blooms remain unclear, one thing is certain: phosphorous pollution into Owasco Lake is one of the top threats and must be reduced, especially in a climate-changing world. Warmer waters lead to longer and more frequent and intense occurrences of toxic blooms.

These toxic pea-green blooms can cause bathing beaches to be closed and may sicken people, pets and wildlife. They also pose a threat to Auburn’s drinking water which Owasco Lake provides for some 50,000 residents.

Nature can help solve this problem and keep our environment and economy healthy.

To reduce the amount of phosphorous loading, the runoff during storm events must slow down, so the sediment has time to disperse and filter out of stream flows prior to entering the lake. Restoring natural infrastructure such as connected floodplains, healthy wetlands, and grassland habitat can bring back this important ecosystem function in areas where it has been disturbed.

Conservancy staff plan to seed the property this spring with a cover crop to help curtail erosion and run-off while assessing restoration strategies with partners in the watershed.

“Protecting and restoring lands like the Parmley tract is an investment in nature’s ability to absorb stormwater and pollutants before they reach the lake,” said Olivia Green, The Nature Conservancy’s Finger Lakes Water Quality Specialist. “This work would not have been possible without the generous donation of the Parmley Family, and years of dedicated conservation work by folks from the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council, and Cayuga County.”

Jim Beckwith of the Owasco Watershed Lake Association (OWLA), added:

“It is outstanding that The Nature Conservancy has secured a portion of the land in the Owasco Flats to help preserve the natural filter of excessive nutrients and other substances from entering Owasco Lake. “Work like this aids in OWLA's goal of restoring, preserving and protecting Owasco Lake for improved quality of our drinking water. Cooperation and leadership with many organizations contributed to this gift, and we’re looking forward to future collaboration."

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 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, 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.