October 23, 2021

Drop by drop

Water quality projects affect more than Cortland

Nick Graziano/contributing photographer

Jared Popoli, conservation assistant for the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, discusses colvert and stream improvements by Flint Road in the town of Lapeer.

Jared Popoli looked down at the bank Thursday afternoon of the branch of the Owego Creek on Flint Road in Lapeer.

He pointed out culvert work and stream work done to the section of the stream that helped the brook trout population — and the Chesapeake Bay 360 miles away.

Work to stabilize the stream channel and enhance the brook trout habitat took four weeks to complete in November, said Popoli, a conservation assistant with the Cortland County Soil and Water District.

“It was a pretty elaborate project,” said Amanda Barber, manager of the district.

The district has received nearly $1 million through the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council to do three similar projects, although perhaps not on the same scope.

“That would be a Cadillac project,” Barber said.

Each has a significance in that it not only affects water in Cortland County, but water supplied to other areas: six Mid-Atlantic states; a handful of municipalities surrounding Skaneatles Lake; and the second largest of the Finger Lakes. And the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The actions taken here have a way of flowing downstream through several other counties and states, before reaching the bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

The projects are as much about water quality as fish, Barber said. “It’s making sure the infrastructure is not contributing to water quality degradation,” she said.

All three projects would protect water quality, but one in particular would affect more than 17 million people from Cortland County to the Atlantic Ocean.

The project, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Stream Corridor and Culvert Rehabilitation Program, would see work done in Solon, McGraw and Cortlandville, Barber said. It would rehabilitate two culverts, enhance hydroseeding — a processes that uses a slurry of seed and mulch as erosion control — and strengthen the roadside ditches to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff.

“We would work with the community,” Barber said.

Soil and Water would design the project and the communities would implement it, she added. It’s all about addressing water quality needs.

The projects would reduce sediment and nutrients entering water bodies from erosion. That includes phosphorus, which could lead to harmful algal blooms, like blue-green algae.

Harmful algal blooms among other things can produce toxins that cause illness in people, pets, livestock and wildlife. The water in Cortland not only supplies drinking water to residents, but also fishing, recreation like canoeing and kayaking, and it supports natural habitats.

A second project would see stream corridor and culvert rehabilitation within the Cayuga Lake Watershed, mainly along Virgil Creek in Virgil and Cortlandville, Barber said. The work would include rehabilitating at least three culverts.

The third project would fall along the same idea as the first two, with two culvert replacements in Scott to help create buffers for Skaneateles Lake’s watershed.

The watersheds

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the U.S., according to the DEC. It’s home to more than 2,700 species of plants and animals and supplies around 500 million pounds of seafood per year.

The watershed covers parts of six states. In New York, it includes 19 counties and 6,250 square miles, the DEC states. Cortland sits at its northernmost tip.

More than 17 million people live in the watershed. Of those, 640,000 live in the New York portion.

Within the watershed lies portions of the Susquehanna River Basin.

“Everyone’s actions affect local water quality,” said Andrew Gavin, deputy executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. “Everyone has action to play.”

The Skaneateles Lake watershed encompasses land within seven municipalities including Scott and Sempronius.

Cayuga Lake is the second largest of the Finger Lakes, extending over 38 miles in length with an average width of 1.75 miles, according to the DEC. It is also one of the deepest of the Finger Lakes at 435 feet. The lake’s watershed covers parts of six counties, including Cortland, and is home to 120,000 people. The watershed also consists of more than 140 streams which flow into the lake along its 95 mile shoreline.

Affects beyond Cortland

Gavin said that because Cortland is one of the northern parts of the watershed, local efforts are important. “What defines the quality of water in the basin starts locally,” he said.

While the Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to 17 million people, a little over four million also live within the Susquehanna River Basin portion, which supplies drinking water to 6 million people, Gavin said, including Philadelphia and Baltimore.

To an extent, sediments and nutrients are a concern across the area, Gavin said. By reducing nutrients and sediment in New York, water quality is improved locally, as well as downstream all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

“One project on a postage stamp of land … has smaller influence,” Gavin said. “We need all the projects.”

The DEC reports that the state is making significant progress to improve water quality through statewide monitoring; water quality assessment reports based on that monitoring; conducting environmental research on specific waters, pollutants, or sources; and wastewater treatment facility improvements. However, more work continues to be needed, particularly to achieve new EPA nutrient reduction goals, according to the DEC.

The commission doesn’t discourage a project based on size, Gavin said. “It takes a broad set of actions on a watershed scale to improve or restore.”

On a small picture, Popoli said the project in Lapeer had payoff. At the beginning of the project, there was almost no brook trout in the stream. A couple of weeks after finishing the project, the area was full of fish.