Saturday, August 10, 2013

Readying our Finger Lakes for Climate Change


CCReadyOrNotWhen you search scientific studies on how Climate Change will affect the Great Lakes you get quite a bit of scientific material. These studies explain how warmer weather will increase evaporation, which will lower water levels. Temperature sensitive fish will move to colder regions of the lakes, if there are colder regions. Warmer waters may affect the cooling ability of nuclear power plants. Extreme weather events (lake-effect snowstorms, for example) will likely change even more radically as the change to a warmer climate further influences local weather near the waters of the Great Lakes. Some studies, like this report Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms from the EPA, attribute more toxic Blue-Green Algae outbreaks to warmer waters, especially in the shallower Lake Erie.

The Finger Lakes do not seem to have as much information available on how they will be affected by Climate Change, though we can probably extrapolate some from what we know about the Great Lake’s materials. For example, fish distribution might be more affected in the Finger Lakes because temperature sensitive fish have fewer choices in the shallower lakes. The NYSERDA funded Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) mentions how agriculture (especially the wine industry), tourism, invasive species, and water withdrawal around the Finger Lakes will be affected by a warmer climate, but not much about how the various lakes’ ecologies themselves will be influenced. All lakes in the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes regions will have phosphorus pollution to deal with.

This all matters because most of our Finger Lakes’ ecologies are heavily influenced by shoreline property owners. Of course, our various environmental authorities, like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), control what can and cannot be done to these ecologies. But the DEC is not located at all the eleven lakes and unless something significant, like a local septic systems breach, sewer overflows, or the destruction of a wetland, catches their attention, it probably goes unattended.

We as a society have allowed most of our lakes’ waterfronts, including the Finger Lakes, to be owned by individuals and businesses that de facto control some of our most precious waterfront ecologies. While waterfront properties are very popular, they are also critical to the health of our lakes, providing a natural barrier from land to water. Property owners are primarily responsible for what wetlands get to exist, what animals get to get to the water, what manmade chemicals get to flow into the water, and a lot more.  Thus, we have allowed a critical part of our environment to be almost entirely purchased privately and consequently controlled by individuals who are not experts on lake ecologies, nor compelled to act as such. (Note: on Hemlock Lake, waterfront property ownership was changed from private to public because it became a water source for the City of Rochester, NY.)

In a time of accelerated anthropogenic Climate Change, we should ask ourselves this hard question: Are shoreline property owners the best stewards of our lake ecologies? As this article suggests, while their intensions are often good, shoreline property owners, may not be the best caretakers of our lakes.

Survey reveals why lawn trumps native shoreline, and what to do about it Property owners believe their waterfronts are more natural than they really are, according to a recent University of Wisconsin survey. That’s why governmental and environmental agencies have a hard time convincing them to adopt native-plant shorelines that are critical to a healthy lake ecosystem. Those are among the findings from a research project to identify why property owners prefer a manicured lawn and to learn how best to persuade them to go natural instead. Now in its fifth year, the research centers on two small lakes ­– 519-acre Long Lake and 229-acre Des Moines Lake – in northwestern Wisconsin’s Burnett County. (August 6, 2013) Great Lakes Echo

As our region warms so will our Finger Lakes’ ecologies. And while, each of the eleven lakes is unique, they will probably have similar environmental concerns—concerns which should be addressed at a comprehensive level, not an ad hoc, private-property basis. For example, the way that we address weeds in our lakes tends to be driven by the local interests of the shoreline residents. What is the heuristic that is being used to best judge Finger Lake’s ecological practices on weeds? Is it aesthetics? Is it fishing? Is it boating? Shoreline property owners tend not to like weeds (even endemic water plants), as a weekend of boating brings loads of weeds to their shore. But are these concerns environmental concerns?

Honeoye Lake debate rages on When the blue-green algae reared its ugly head again this summer on Honeoye Lake, the all-too familiar menace again riled lake homeowners and others with close ties to the lake. While troubles this year bear resemblance to past seasons — think 2010, 2002, and blooms that made headlines as far back as the 1940s and '50s — this year experts and average observers alike are taking a closer look. It has generated debate, fueled social media hype and put Honeoye Lake at the forefront of a campaign to “fix it.” At the center of the debate is what should be done, if anything. “There is over 200 years worth of pollution on the bottom of the lake, and it would take an ice age to remove it,” said Bruce Gilman, professor of environmental conservation and horticulture at Finger Lakes Community College. (August 7, 2013)

Shouldn’t the control of the weeds and other environmental concerns in our Finger Lakes be viewed through the lens of Climate Change? How are harmful algae outbreaks in our Finger Lakes related to Climate Change? How do we get the myriad interests of shoreline property owners around our Finger Lakes to act as one to increase the resiliency and health of these lakes as Climate Change increases the challenges?

I should mention briefly the critical role of Finger Lakes associations that educate residents on or near their lakes about invasive species, phosphates (fertilizers), pesticides, and herbicides, conduct water testing, and sponsor trash pickup events. You can check individual Finger Lakes associations here or check with New York State Federation of Lake Associations (FOLA). However, their bailiwick is not Climate Change, nor do they have the force of the law behind them.

Even the DEC, while they are Working on Many Fronts on Climate Change, have no comprehensive climate plan for all our Finger Lakes. I suggest they start with conducting their own climate studies for the Finger Lakes and accumulate whatever other studies they can find to provide New Yorkers with an overall plan that would help our Finger Lakes adapt to Climate Change—something with some teeth in it. Defaulting to present practices in our Finger Lakes, where so many private property owners surrounding our lakes are either ignoring these precious ecologies or battling for their own private interests, is unlikely to do anything but create another environmental tragedy of the commons, where everyone fights for their last piece of these precious resources.

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