Reflections in the water

Just recently, Keuka Lake, an unusual Y-shaped lake in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, featured in a short video clip on the BBC News Website[1].  The video shows a boat crossing a lake with a barely visible shoreline, the air thick with pollution from the wildfires away to the north, the darkened surface reflecting only the hazy yellow of the sky above.

It was a shock to see the blue waters of the lake had disappeared, all swallowed up in the thick haze along with the varied shades of green shoreline forest, pasture, crops, and vineyards, more shocking than any image of urban air pollution from the large north-eastern cities also affected by the large-scale wildfires occurring across Canada. 

Although situated in a very rural area with low population density, Keuka Lake is no stranger to environmental problems.  Deteriorating water quality has been a long-standing issue in the wider Finger Lakes region; arising first from a lack of sewage treatment in the small towns and a reliance on individual septic systems and holding tanks in the properties both on and away from the shoreline; second, soil erosion and nutrient loading from agricultural activity on the steep slopes in the lake watershed areas.  Invasive species, such as Eurasian Milfoil (believed to have arrived via the Erie Canal system[2]), have caused additional problems in this and other Finger Lakes in the area. 

Keuka Lake (Source:

Action to address a perceived decline in lake water quality across the Finger Lakes region began in the 1980s, building on research undertaken during the previous decade.  State funding was provided to support a range of actions although, initially, most local authorities tended to invest in technical solutions, such as harvesting machinery to physically remove the invasive aquatic vegetation, rather than deal with the underlying behavioural and causal mechanisms.  It was a classic example of a regional-scale problem being left to local authorities with limited resources to sort out within their own narrow boundaries[3].  The people around Keuka Lake, however, recognised that everyone contributed to the problem and to be successful any approach would require an integrated approach by all the townships and two counties covering the watershed[4].  The Keuka Lake Shore Property Owners (KLSPO)[5] were active in the 1980s, developing links with Yates County and engaging in what would now be called ‘citizen science’, collecting water samples and monitoring changes in water quality.  A stakeholder group (the Yates County Aquatic Vegetation Committee) was established, which started by hiring researchers to provide the evidence needed to persuade local communities of the need for action. 

Two initial pieces of research[6] examined first, the perceptions of property owners regarding water quality and second, the management of watershed septic systems – a suspected source of contamination.  The property owner survey revealed that the majority of the population favoured additional regulation and land use controls to protect water quality (a key issue – as this is one of the few tools local government has available).  The survey also showed that lakeshore owners were willing to pay more than other categories of resident to support the changes required.  Following this up with a statistical analysis of septic system survey records (going back to the early 1950s in some townships) indicated that almost one third of septic systems were over 20 years-old and a significant proportion had not been inspected since installation due to a lack of monitoring capacity.

The level of local support and lack of control over human waste identified in the surveys provided the impetus to move forward with a watershed-wide partnership approach.  Several years of facilitation and capacity building followed, which led to the formation of the Keuka Watershed Improvement Cooperative (KWIC).  In 1993 KWIC adopted plans for a collaborative local government approach to managing wastewater across the watershed[7].  The approach required each local government unit in the watershed to adopt uniform wastewater management regulations and share the costs of an integrated approach to improving lake water quality.  The system has operated ever since with minimal changes, demonstrating the potential capacity of local government to address environmental problems that cross political and administrative boundaries. 

Keuka Lake, looking towards Bluff Point and the two northern branches of the lake.


In the 1980s the people living around Keuka Lake looked at their lake and recognised a potential problem.  The reflection they saw in the water was themselves, a group of individual communities but all contributing to the pollution of a shared and valued resource.  So, they created a partnership that self-regulated and paid for improvements.  That is not to suggest the process was easy, it took KWIC more than ten years of research, capacity building, and discussion to develop an inter-municipal agreement that utilised existing state laws to arrive at an approach that works.  

It has also not meant the end of water quality problems[8], but it has provided the foundation for creating innovative solutions.  A more recent development has been the adoption of the Seneca-Keuka Watershed Nine Element Plan for Phosphorus (a much large partnership area containing more than half of the water within the eleven New York Finger Lakes)[9], building on the success of partnership agreements created within the Keuka and Seneca lake watershed areas over the past four decades. 

Although the UK legal and political context is very different from that of New York State, there are lessons to be learned for how to tackle difficult and integrated environmental problems that cross administrative boundaries.  There may also be lessons here for dealing with larger scale regional and even global environmental problems.  But before that can happen we will need to look deep into the water and see what is reflected.  If we only see a polluted sky, caused by others living far away, then increased pessimism, anxiety, and catastrophe are the likely outcomes.  Solutions will only be found when we see ourselves in the reflection, and start taking the steps to alter our own behaviour, as well as voting for political representatives who have the courage to change the status quo.

Map showing location of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York




[3] In the 1990s Keuka Lake had around 6,000 individual septic systems in the watershed and over 18,000 people dependent on the lake for their drinking water. The lake is approximately

11,678 acres in size and the watershed includes 2 counties, 10 townships, and 2 ‘villages’ (more densely populated areas).  It is also a tourist destination which has a significant impact on the local economy.

[4] Herring, J.  and Powell, J.R.  1990.   Iterative Evaluation of a Lake Water Quality Protection Program. Water Resources Bulletin.  Vol. 26(6), pp.893-901.

[5]  The KLSPO, which dates back to 1956, became the Keuka Lake Association in 1990.

[6] Powell, J. and J. Herring (1988) Keuka Lake Watershed Survey: Final Report.   Powell, J., Herring, J. and Anderson, T. (1988) Keuka Lake Septic system Survey.  Both reports were commissioned by the Yates County Aquatic Vegetation Committee, Penn Yan, New York.

[7] Keuka Watershed Improvement Cooperative: History.

[8]  []    In 2021 New York State Department for Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) identified Keuka Lake as “Stressed” for use as a water supply source, (a range of pollutants are mentioned including ammonia, chloride, nitrate + nitrate- Nitrogen and phosphorous).  The same report notes that ‘both Seneca and Keuka Lakes have experienced algal blooms and documented multiple occurrences of cyanobacterial blooms, referred to as HABs. HABs pose a threat to public health and can impair both recreational access and potable water use’.

[9] Seneca-Keuka Watershed Nine Element Plan for Phosphorus (2022) []   The Report notes the following: ‘9E Plans are among the NYSDEC approaches to Clean Water Planning across the state. The plans’ format and content are consistent with the…USEPA framework for watershed planning; they embrace a watershed approach and recommend specific actions in an adaptive management framework’.