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Keeping Water Clean and Farmers on the Land

Farmers are some of our nation’s greatest environmental stewards.  This notion is perhaps better exemplified in New York than anywhere else.  New York State is home to a globally significant effort to provide clean, unfiltered drinking water to more than 9 million residents in 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.

It is a great example of farmers across the state making a living from their land while taking good care of it.  Critical to the success in 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 acres. Such public investments are important to solving water quality problems as many farmers are not paid for providing clean water, wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits that the public enjoys and protecting the environment can be an additional cost to farm families.

However, at a time of tight budgets at all levels of government, such public funds to help farmers protect and steward their land are under threat of being cut severely or eliminated.  So, 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 seeks 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 nutrients entering the lake from agriculture. Other activities including over fertilization of lawns along the lake shore and tributaries, poorly functioning septic systems, improper disposal of yard waste and overwintering and nesting of waterfowl are also identified as contributing to the problem.

Our study is documenting current efforts by farmers to improve water quality, identifying barriers for farmers taking further steps to protect water quality and developing strategies to help farmers do more to protect Owasco Lake while making a good 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 Technical Assistance 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, engaging farmers in protecting water quality will require we overcome boundaries between agencies and coordinate efforts to provide farmers with timely solutions to the full range of conservation challenges they are facing.  Cost share dollars from conservation programs will continue to be important, and we will be challenged to ensure that such funds in a way that maximizes the benefits to farmers and the general public. Significant action is also needed to stop the continued loss of farmland to the scattered development that 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 as communities strive for both a healthy environment and a strong farm economy.

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