Farmers are some of our nation’s greatest environmental stewards. This notion is exemplified in New York State, where farmers are part of a globally significant effort to provide clean, unfiltered drinking water to more than nine million residents of New York City. This success story is providing incredibly clean water to millions of people and saving city residents billions of dollars annually by avoiding the costs of constructing and operating water treatment facilities.
Success in the New York City Watershed is due in part to farmers protecting their land and managing it as a natural water filter in the watersheds surrounding the city’s reservoir system. Critical to the environmental health of the New York City watershed is the millions of dollars invested by New York City in farms. These investments have permanently protected more than 15,000 acres from development and put in place stream buffers and other conservation practices on thousands more. Such public investments are important to solving water quality problems. But while protecting the environment can be an additional cost to farm families, many farmers are not compensated for providing clean water, wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits enjoyed by the public.
At a time of tight budgets at all levels of government, public funds that help farmers protect and steward their land are under threat of being cut severely or eliminated. How can the farm community be a part of solving water quality challenges at a time of such uncertainty about farm profitability and public conservation dollars?
This is exactly the type of question that we seek to answer for the Owasco Lake Watershed, one of New York’s Finger Lakes. Owasco Lake serves as a filtered drinking water source for approximately 55,000 people. Roughly 55 percent of the watershed surrounding the lake is in agricultural use and Owasco Lake has historically been one of several Finger Lakes with water quality problems.
Some of the water quality concerns are due to run-off entering the lake from agriculture, but that is not the only source of pollution. Other activities of concern include the over-fertilization of lawns along the lake shore and tributaries, poorly functioning septic systems, improper disposal of yard waste and the overwintering and nesting of waterfowl.
Creating a Conservation Blueprint
We’re documenting current efforts by farmers to protect water quality while identifying barriers keeping farmers from taking further steps to protect drinking water. Through the study, we will also develop strategies to help farmers do more to protect Owasco Lake while still making a living from their land. Our “conservation blueprint” for the watershed will be released later this summer and focuses in four areas:
Issue 1: Need for Further Research and Guidance on Conservation Issues
Issue 2: Barriers to Adoption of Conservation Practices
Issue 3: Public Perception of Farm Practices
Issue 4: Loss of Farmland to Development
Recommendations to address these four challenges are focused on Owasco Lake but can provide lessons for the rest of New York where farmers are major players in the landscape. Looking forward, our efforts to engage farmers in protecting drinking water will require us to overcome boundaries between agencies and coordinating efforts while providing farmers with timely solutions to the full range of conservation challenges they are facing. Funds from conservation programs will continue to be important, and we will be challenged to ensure they’re used in a way that maximizes the benefits to farmers and the general public. Swift action is also needed to stop the continued loss of farmland from sprawling development, which has plagued New York’s rural landscape for decades.
The quest for cleaner water will continue to challenge the farm community and the many agencies and organizations working with them. But ultimately, it will challenge all of us to ensure both a healthy environment and a strong farm economy.
About the Author: David Haight is New York Director of American Farmland Trust and aids state and federal legislators as they work on agricultural and land conservation legislation. He has helped coordinate projects that have permanently protected more than 4,000 acres of New York farmland.