The Importance of Seneca Lake to All Watershed Residents

Seneca Lake is known for its clear, blue waters, abundant recreational activities and tourist attractions, and most of all its beauty throughout the seasons.
Photo: Shannon Hazlitt Harts

By Celia Phillips, Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association Intern

Seneca Lake is known for its clear, blue waters, abundant recreational activities and tourist attractions, and most of all its beauty throughout the seasons. It is an ideal place to be, whether you call it home or are just visiting. Over the years, Seneca Lake has remained fairly pristine, but troubling trends are emerging that could jeopardize the lake’s health as well as the health of those who enjoy and rely on it.

The health of Seneca Lake has a direct impact on many of our lives, especially those of us who call it home. It is an essential source of drinking water for thousands of residences and is also responsible for attracting tourists that allow local businesses and towns to thrive. In recent years, warming summertime water and air temperatures along with increased offshore nutrient flows have begun to create negative changes in our lake’s chemistry. Levels of seaweed growth have skyrocketed, especially in terms of the species Cladophora, which creates a smelly, thick, green layer on the shoreline as it is washed in by wave action.

This overproduction of seaweed that we are seeing is encouraged by fertilizer runoff from local farms. During heavy rainfall events, fertilizers used in agricultural fields are washed into nearby tributaries that flow into Seneca Lake. Businesses and homeowners can also unwittingly contribute to this nutrient influx through the use of fertilizers on lawns and gardens located on the shores of the lake. This increases nutrient levels in the lake to above normal amounts, allowing for overproduction of seaweed that turns our lake into a green, smelly one instead of a clear, blue one. This not only threatens the supply of clean drinking water available, but also will affect the revenue brought in by tourism as no one wants to visit a fetid, green lake.

Even more alarming than the overproduction of seaweed is the emergence of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), concentrated mats of potentially toxic algae that grow at a fast rate and appear as a scum on the surface of the water. In Seneca Lake, HABs are caused by the rapid growth of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria. This growth is spurred by warm water temperatures in late summer as well as increased nutrient levels in the lake. These blooms are often found along shorelines as wave action causes them to condense there, making it dangerous for dogs and people to swim if there is a bloom. HABs can vary greatly in appearance and their locations, and lifespans are variable depending on weather and water conditions, making identification difficult for the untrained eye. Even if a HAB is correctly identified, the algae’s level of toxicity cannot be determined without a sample and lab test. Because of their unpredictability, HABs pose a great threat to recreational activities during the peak of the summer season. If blooms are present, beaches and parks will have to close and activities such as boating may be restricted.

Our lake also faces threats from invasive species; both plant and animal. Most invasives in Seneca Lake are introduced accidentally by boats that have not been properly cleaned or drained of bilge water, resulting in a possible transfer of foreign species from other waterbodies into our lake. Invasive species are also spread unintentionally through fishing practices such as the use of non-native live bait. Because of accidental introductions such as these, Seneca Lake’s native species are at risk due to high levels of competition with these invasives for territory, food and other resources. Non-native species also affect recreational activities such as fishing and swimming. Invasive fish will substantially lower population numbers of native fish that are sought by fishermen. For example, the invasive Rudd, not considered to be a particularly palatable fish, is multiplying quickly in our lake. Because these invasive fish do not have a natural predator in Seneca Lake, there is a potential for them to push out more desirable, native fish species as they directly compete for resources. Also, invasive mollusk species such as the Zebra Mussel can potentially make activities such as swimming less desirable to visitors as they can cause injury if stepped on. They also can clog waterlines and intakes, incurring expense for those who use the lake as a water supply.

All of these threats give us reasons to worry about the future of our lake. Businesses and residences alike need Seneca Lake to remain healthy and picturesque in order to survive. If Seneca Lake succumbs to the overproduction of seaweed, toxic algae and invasive species, tourism rates and property values will plummet as the beauty and activities that draw people here will no longer be able to exist. Seneca Lake is a large source of clean freshwater, which is a highly demanded resource today and will be more so in the future as populations increase and freshwater resources dwindle. We have been entrusted with a beautiful asset that is our responsibility to protect. If threats to the lake’s health and cleanliness are not addressed, we will waste one of the most valuable resources we have been given as well as a beautiful place. Thankfully, associations such as the Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization are here to help us protect the lake as a community. Together we can keep our lake beautiful and healthy for future generations to enjoy!

This piece was produced by the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, a nonprofit that for more than 20 years has been creating new partnerships and launching new programs to promote and protect Seneca Lake’s water quality for the health and safety of those who live in the watershed. This article was shared with us as part of our community outreach to include a multitude of voices and views about the Finger Lakes foodshed.

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