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Looking After the Lake: A Watershed Steward’s Role

Watershed Managers, Watershed Stewards, Riverkeepers, Water Resource Managers… all are examples of positions created in response to the recognized need for management of waterbodies according to natural, not man-made boundaries. Individuals within these roles, such as myself, work to coordinate efforts and allocated resources to the waters we are charged with safeguarding.
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Photo: Shannon Hazlitt Harts

By Ian Smith, Seneca Lake Watershed Steward

When the powers-that-be carved up the continental U.S. into its current configuration of 48 states, they largely delineated borders based on compass headings (think the Mason-Dixon Line or the Four Corner states) and natural boundaries (rivers and shorelines primarily). Naturally, this same approach extended into local government delineation as well.

While human-based systems like roadways and courts are malleable and can be managed via these boundaries, natural systems are another matter. Watersheds know no boundary. More often than not they include many state, county and/or local governments depending on the scale of the watershed in question, and this in turn is what makes watershed management so complex.

In 1878, John Wesley Powell, recognizing this complexity, proposed that political boundaries in the West be established along watershed boundaries. Although Powell was subsequently fired from his position as the head of the U.S. Geological Survey for his progressive thinking, we have slowly come to recognize the wisdom in his proposal.

Watershed Managers, Watershed Stewards, Riverkeepers, Water Resource Managers… all are examples of positions created in response to the recognized need for management of waterbodies according to natural, not man-made boundaries. Individuals within these roles, such as myself, work to coordinate efforts and allocated resources to the waters we are charged with safeguarding.

This is not to say that others are not working toward this same goal, but rather that traditional structures and systems have been set up to function differently. For example, soil and water districts have long been working to promote water quality improvements but they are organized by county. This means that the five soil and water districts of Chemung, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca and Yates within the Seneca Lake watershed must divide their attention among multiple waterbodies and watersheds.

The Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization (SWIO), and by extension my position, was established to work specifically on behalf of Seneca Lake and its watershed via a collaborative effort of the five counties and 40 municipalities wholly or partly within it. The nature of this work and how it is completed can vary greatly. At times it may be highly localized and focused, such as working with a specific municipality or soil and water district on a construction or educational project. At other times it may involve organizing a partnership group and working on a watershed-scale project such as the ongoing Seneca-Keuka Watershed Nine Element Plan. Furthermore, the unique arrangement between SWIO and Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) – the Seneca Watershed Steward position is housed at the Finger Lakes Institute within HWS – opens up additional research opportunities as well. While it certainly feels self-serving to say, the design and function of SWIO and the Steward position are a vital and necessary component for successful local management of a shared natural resource such as Seneca Lake.

After growing up in Maryland where the ecological degradation of the Chesapeake Bay had a profound economic and physiological impact on many, it has been highly encouraging to see the positive impact a watershed based management approach has had there in recent years. Seneca Lake is not nearly in as bad shape as the Chesapeake Bay was in my childhood, but we are seeing disturbing trends of degradation. The sooner we respond, the better.

When the powers-that-be carved up the continental U.S. into its current configuration of 48 states, they largely delineated borders based on compass headings (think the Mason-Dixon Line or the Four Corner states) and natural boundaries (rivers and shorelines primarily). Naturally, this same approach extended into local government delineation as well.

While human-based systems like roadways and courts are malleable and can be managed via these boundaries, natural systems are another matter. Watersheds know no boundary. More often than not they include many state, county and/or local governments depending on the scale of the watershed in question, and this in turn is what makes watershed management so complex.

In 1878, John Wesley Powell, recognizing this complexity, proposed that political boundaries in the West be established along watershed boundaries. Although Powell was subsequently fired from his position as the head of the U.S. Geological Survey for his progressive thinking, we have slowly come to recognize the wisdom in his proposal.

Watershed Managers, Watershed Stewards, Riverkeepers, Water Resource Managers… all are examples of positions created in response to the recognized need for management of waterbodies according to natural, not man-made boundaries. Individuals within these roles, such as myself, work to coordinate efforts and allocated resources to the waters we are charged with safeguarding.

This is not to say that others are not working toward this same goal, but rather that traditional structures and systems have been set up to function differently. For example, soil and water districts have long been working to promote water quality improvements but they are organized by county. This means that the five soil and water districts of Chemung, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca and Yates within the Seneca Lake watershed must divide their attention among multiple waterbodies and watersheds.

The Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization (SWIO), and by extension my position, was established to work specifically on behalf of Seneca Lake and its watershed via a collaborative effort of the five counties and 40 municipalities wholly or partly within it. The nature of this work and how it is completed can vary greatly. At times it may be highly localized and focused, such as working with a specific municipality or soil and water district on a construction or educational project. At other times it may involve organizing a partnership group and working on a watershed-scale project such as the ongoing Seneca-Keuka Watershed Nine Element Plan. Furthermore, the unique arrangement between SWIO and Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) – the Seneca Watershed Steward position is housed at the Finger Lakes Institute within HWS – opens up additional research opportunities as well. While it certainly feels self-serving to say, the design and function of SWIO and the Steward position are a vital and necessary component for successful local management of a shared natural resource such as Seneca Lake.

After growing up in Maryland where the ecological degradation of the Chesapeake Bay had a profound economic and physiological impact on many, it has been highly encouraging to see the positive impact a watershed-based management approach has had there in recent years. Seneca Lake is not nearly in as bad shape as the Chesapeake Bay was in my childhood, but we are seeing disturbing trends of degradation. The sooner we respond, the better.

You may be familiar with the saying it is easier to destroy than to create. I have my own version of this when it comes to resource management; it is easier to protect than to restore. Reactive management and action will always be more costly, more time consuming and less effective than preventative action. This is my aim and my promise… protect what is present wherever possible, restore what we have lost whenever achievable. In my travels around the watershed I have been greatly encouraged by the general knowledge on and interest in watershed issues, and I have no doubt that together we can achieve SWIO’s mission: preserve, protect and remediate… Seneca Lake.
Learn more about Ian’s background at https://www.hws.edu/fli/staff.aspx.

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.

Ian Smith is the first Watershed Steward of Seneca Lake. He works out of the Finger Lakes Institute (FLI) to support the Seneca Lake Intermunicipal Organization (SWIO) in addressing water quality and ecological concerns involving Seneca Lake and its watershed.

Photo from Hobart and William Smith Collages

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