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Soil and lake health central to improving region’s environment over long-term

The long-term health of Seneca Lake is crucial. Not only for maintaining the region’s drinking water supply- but also for the sake of tourism and agriculture. Later this month, a farming symposium will focus on what’s known as Payment for Ecosystem Services and Carbon Capture Programs, which pay farmers to sequester carbon.

The programs work the same way that a lot of current agriculture incentive programs do by paying farmers to take certain steps. Instead of paying farmers to plant certain crops- it encourages certain types of actions that benefit the environment. Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association is teaming up with the Town of Geneva to make this symposium happen- but the implications spread throughout the region.

Jacob Fox, of SLPWA said he’s hopeful that this kind of program can work outward throughout the Finger Lakes. “Basically, there’s a growing trend and desire to pay farmers for the value that they can provide in clean air and clean water protection,” he explained. “And so these payments, ecosystem marketplaces if you will, currently exist, and some are still being developed- so we want the goal of this symposium to be to let farmers know what’s available on that front, and also engage with them in a conversation.”

One of the speakers at the virtual event is from a Hudson Valley farm group that has taken on this kind of initiative. Fox said it’s a great model for the Finger Lakes. “It’s paying farmers for their ecosystem services- it’s a win-win,” he explained. “It’s happened in other parts of the country and world- it’s all in search of improved soil health and environmental stability.” Australia currently has a national carbon market, which started last year. In the U.S., both California and Vermont have rolled out similar initiatives. Fox says that SLPWA and the Town of Geneva have been talking with Tompkins County Cooperative Extension, discussing the possibilities on how to make a Finger Lakes-specific marketplace. One major difficulty- in simply looking at other states or regions that have tackled this kind of program- is the lack of ‘plug-and-play’ options.

Soil and environmental needs are widely different across states. However, a region like the Finger Lakes is ideal for finding overlap so that a collective market can be arranged. “We’re really focusing on the water quality piece- obviously, it’s something that everyone has become much more aware of in the last few years,” Fox continued. To that end, improving the top soil on one acre of land can translate to 25,000 gallons of water being held. Retaining water in one area, instead of allowing it to runoff very quickly can have a significant impact on lake health- if executed on a regional level.

“If you live downstream from a farm- you know, based on historical farming practices that if it’s participating in the commodity industry that it’s going to hold less-and-less water each year,” Fox said. “There’s going to be increased flooding downstream, or around the lakes. Tile drainage on commodity farms has played a big role in this part.”

That translates to a lot of unfortunate outcomes for the region’s lakes- including Seneca. “We can reduce the nutrient loading in the lakes, like Seneca, if we start to hold more of that water in place,” Fox explained. Runoff has become as big of a problem in the Finger Lakes- as the nutrient loading itself. He says it’s easy to spot after a heavy rain. “Take a ride around some of these back roads around the lakes after a big rain, and you’ll see fast-running water in ditches, farm fields, and anywhere else there’s a steep grade,” he added. “These are the areas where water-retention is most-critical.”

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

That’s because when the water enters the nearest large body of water- typically one of the region’s lakes, like Seneca- everything that the water picked up winds up there. That can happen dozens of times over in one year in each location that is prone to this kind of runoff. But the process that landed the region in this spot was actually decades of incentives that went too far commoditizing more growth. “It’s an economic thing, as much as it is an environmental one,” Fox said. “No one’s really keeping track of how much soil farmers are eroding into local water sources with commodity crops- and they’re even encouraged to tear out hedgerows or buffer strips to plant right up to the road.”

He says the changeover would help farmers focus on developing a better ecosystem in the same way they are incentivized to plant commodity crops. After all, the region’s lakes are a major commodity for supporting life and economy. “A program like this one would say, ‘Hey farmers, we’ve been paying you for the last few decades to plant corn, soy, and other commodity crops. Let’s start paying you for your ecosystem services- so if you build a farm pond, if you improve soil health, if you foster pollinator biodiversity, or lower flood risk- all of these things that we won’t have to pay for on the back end- we will provide an economic incentive’,” Fox added.

For those concerned about the cost of such a program- there’s plenty of evidence in the region pointing to the growing cost of ensuring a clean, healthy water supply. “It’s a lot easier and a lot more environmentally sustainable to be proactive and the farmers are in the best position to be proactive- and to actually protect our lakes from having extra damage done to them. It will protect our region and farm lands, too. At this point though, we’re really starting to realize the costs of our actions over the last several decades.”

He says that given the economic challenge that farmers are facing today- adding new economic benefits to improving soil and lake water health is a no brainer. “We’re all going to pay for this if we don’t start to make better long-term choices. We can help them economically by incentivizing farmers to take different actions- and also provide us an ecosystem across the region and around our lakes that is sustainable.”

Another problem is the way many of these commodity farms have changed over time. “Many farms- might have had a solid amount of topsoil at the surface. Now, they might be down to one, two, or three inches of topsoil. At that point, you’ve lost the ability to retain water, and that just has an exacerbating impact on the region.”

Fox says the goal of the symposium will be to engage and educate. He hopes that SLPWA can continue these types of events into the year- to develop a Finger Lakes approach to addressing soil and water health.