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Fighting to Protect the Finger Lakes Watershed

Dr. Adam Effler is a unique, one-of-a-kind blend of scientist, community activist and communicator. He’s also a black belt martial arts instructor. All of these qualities are reflected in his passion to protect and preserve the Finger Lakes Watershed; the 11 lakes and numerous watersheds that flow north to Lake Ontario and cover approximately 4,600 square miles in 13 counties.

In addition to our lakes being a major source of drinking water, they are very important for tourism and recreation. They are a significant economic driver for local communities,” explains Adam, who is Executive Director of the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council (OLWMC) and one of the founding members of the Lake Friendly Living Coalition of the Finger Lakes.

The coalition is a subgroup of the Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance, which represents more than 10,000 individual property owners, residents and voters in efforts to preserve and protect the watersheds. At the heart of watershed management is collaboration and communication, the primary reason for the creation of the coalition, which currently includes Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Seneca, Conesus, Honeoye, and Skaneateles Lakes.

LOCATE Finger Lakes recently published another article on this topic: Governor Hochul announces agreement to protect pristine Cayuga Lake waterfront – Governor Announces Agreement Between Finger Lakes Land Trust and New York State Electric & Gas

Why “Lake Friendly Living”

While spearheading efforts at Owasco Lake, Adam was looking for common messaging to drive interest and advance conservation activities. He and his council thought the “Lake Friendly Living” slogan used by representatives for Canandaigua and Seneca Lakes worked well. Because of the value of a unified and collective voice, representatives from Owasco and Skaneateles Lakes joined forces to bring those two lakes in and form a coalition. Other Finger Lakes quickly came on board too.

To bring more attention to their efforts, they coordinated commemorative resolutions among the New York State Assembly and Senate to provide for a combined resolution that celebrates Lake Friendly Living Awareness in the Finger Lakes Region. They also initiated multiple educational and communications efforts to drive behavioral change.

A centerpiece is the Lake Friendly Living Pledge where residents and businesses pledge to voluntarily adopt recommended conservation practices. Because the challenges facing each lake vary, the pledges are customized per lake. For example, they may include limiting unnecessary use of fertilizers, proper disposal of pharmaceutical drugs, and adopting best management practices. Pledge signers can display a Lake Friendly Living sign at their homes and businesses.

Hobart and William Smith (HWS) Colleges Professor of Environmental Studies John Halfman and the Finger Lakes Institute (FLI) at HWS have also played an important role in Finger Lakes watershed management. FLI is dedicated to the promotion of environmental research and education about the Finger Lakes and surrounding environments.

John has taught hundreds of HWS students about the lakes and he frequently publishes his data and research as open-source so that it can be used to make decisions about how to best protect Finger Lakes waters. Seeking and sharing information about the Finger Lakes with managers, government agencies and citizens is one of the goals of the Finger Lakes Institute.

Education is a strong component of coalition programming for the Lake Friendly Living Coalition of the Finger Lakes including both virtual learning opportunities as well as in-person activities such as the installation of nurseries and the creation of rain barrels. For the second year, May was designated Lake Friendly Living Awareness Month. This year an educational series highlights watershed resiliency with an extensive calendar of events and speakers.

Signage throughout the watershed also has been designed to promote the importance of the lakes and how to protect them. To minimize invasive species like zebra mussels, portable billboards have been installed at boat launches to share the recommended protocol on how to wash a vessel before entering and leaving a water body. Colorful Lake Friendly Living medallions are placed where tributaries cross major roadways and on “entering municipality” signage.

A Deep Love of Science and the Finger Lakes

A Syracuse native, Adam describes the Central New York/Finger Lakes Region as uniquely beautiful. “We have access to robust water resources, beautiful deciduous vegetation and get to experience all the seasons of the year. That’s dynamic.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of Vermont, he returned to the area for his master’s and doctorate degrees from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the oldest institution in the United States focusing on the study of the environment. Adam did his dissertation research on aquatic optics, developing models for Cayuga Lake. He then worked as a project scientist at Onondaga Environmental Institute whose mission is to advance environmental research, education, planning and restoration in Central New York.

Looking to expand into the role of a changemaker, he took his current position at the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council in 2019, committed to using his science background in decision making. I felt as a scientist, if you’re not involved with management yourself, how can you manifest change? Our management decisions and implementation toward conservation have to be founded in science and a data-driven approach.“

LOCATE Finger Lakes believes it’s important to support our beautiful regional natural resources and we’re pleased to tell Adam’s story about the Finger Lakes Watershed to celebrate his hard work and collaboration with regional partners.

Adam is also committed to a balanced approach to the complex community-wide issues of watershed management. For example, he cites the contentious state decision to protect New York City’s drinking water supply by creating protected reservoirs in the Catskills. That decision cut off the land from both indigenous people, residents and businesses who had been in the area for decades.

What we are doing in the Finger Lakes is on the cutting edge. We are striving to establish a uniquely balanced approach where we’re maintaining land rights while protecting the watershed for the benefit of the community and future. We are continuing to ramp up and get more buy in. What we do is not easy work but, in my mind, most work worth doing is not easy work.”

Lessons Learned

Adam says one of the most important lessons learned from the coalition’s efforts is making sure to recognize the good work that has been done. He points to agriculture, one of the region’s key industries, as an example. “Innovative farmers are using a mass balance approach to see if the inputs that are going into their farm are equal to the outputs that are coming out of their yields. Because of this approach, they’ve done a great job helping to minimize nutrient and sediment runoff while operating their farms more efficiently.”

He believes the watershed has continually improved over the last several decades because of best management practices like cover crops. The evidence of this is seen in aerial photography where the Finger Lakes looks green for many months during the year. He also cited no-till agriculture as not tearing up the land as much, resulting in a significant reduction in pollutant loading to lakes, such as Owasco.

Unfortunately, other issues have become more prominent such as harmful algal blooms, Quagga mussels, and the warming of the lakes due to climate change. All affect the watershed. The toxins in algal blooms can cause large-scale fish kills and impact mammals, birds, and other wildlife. Invasive mussels displace native species and are a nuisance to humans.

He and the many professionals and volunteers who are helping protect the Finger Lakes know they have a fight ahead of them to preserve one of the region’s most important and prominent resources. Personally, he looks at the lakes he stewards as friends, which is why the Lake Friendly Living slogan has particular meaning to him.

We’re all looking to have friends and good relationships. I think that is why what we are doing resonates with people. We all want to have that positive relationship with our lakes.”

To learn more about Lake Friendly Living, read the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council (OLWMC) Report: Organizational Review, 2022 Budget, Regulatory Status, Public Outreach, Initiatives and Special Projects.

LOCATE Finger Lakes is a Finger Lakes economic development initiative designed to assist and foster collaboration among the established Finger Lakes economic development efforts with targeted, proactive, marketing communications and networking. LOCATE Finger Lakes is focused on directing local, national and international business leaders to Finger Lakes information and inspire them to look closely at the region’s assets enabling their businesses, their families and their employees’ families to thrive.

Maureen Ballatori is a LOCATE Finger Lakes Business Journal contributing writer and a member of the organization’s board of directors. She is founder and CEO of 29 Design Studio, a creative agency for food, beverage and agriculture brands. Ballatori also owns Port 100 Cowork and Metro Collective which helps Upstate NY shared space operators activate their workspaces.

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