Written by Rich Adams and Ron Klinczar
Wetlands. Mother Nature‘s ecological superheroes. They provide unique habitats for all sorts of songbirds, butterflies, important aquatic insects, animals, and specialized plants. Equally as important they are hydraulic sponges that can retain and absorb floodwaters, and release the water slowly, after allowing sediments to settle out. When these functions occur nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are retained in the wetland and assimilated into plants and substrates. Nitrates, which are the most abundant form of nitrogen in the aquatic environment, are converted to harmless nitrogen gas which is released into the atmosphere. As you probably have heard, both phosphorus and nitrates are strongly implicated in the harmful algal blooms and nuisance weed growth plaguing the Finger Lakes, so their capture and conversion by wetlands is important.
The Keuka Outlet is the stream that carries Keuka Lake waters to Seneca Lake, discharging at Dresden. If you’ve ever hiked or biked the adjacent Keuka Outlet trail (and we highly recommend it), you’ll be traveling on the abandoned canal towpath/railbed. You may notice that the trail bed separates the Keuka Outlet braided stream channels from wetland areas located on the north side of the trail. The Crooked Creek Canal project, which was constructed last century, changed the waterway system and separated these wetlands from the Keuka Outlet. In that era, they functioned to control flows and flooding. Today, they need to be restored to that natural and useful purpose.
The majority of the flow in the outlet is Keuka Lake’s own water. However, other sources are collected and carried in the stream including urban runoff, the effluent from the Penn Yan Sewage Treatment Plant , and agricultural runoff during high flow conditions. All these sources can contain phosphorus and nitrates and other pollutants, most of which can be treated by wetlands!
OK, enough science and history. Where does SNPR come in? Ian Smith, the SWIO Watershed Steward, came up with a great idea - to reconnect the Keuka Outlet adjacent wetlands with the main stream channel. During high flow events, water, laden with sediments and nutrients, would be diverted from the Outlet to the wetlands, and not be discharged into our lake.
This can be made to happen by the construction of culvert connectors under the elevated trail path at key locations so that high flows can pass into the wetlands, reviving them and restoring their eco-functions. Retention basins and wetland expansions can also be constructed, enhancing the overall function of the ecosystem. Grants for the overall construction project have already been applied for and show great promise of success. The first step in the project is an engineering study and design, which will be undertaken this year. Yates County, the Town of Geneva, Friends of the Outlet, and SNPR are partners in funding the study.
Estimations have shown that the Keuka Outlet conveys the largest load of phosphorus into Seneca Lake of all its tributary streams. The reduction of this pollution, as assisted by the SNPR program, is a stellar example of what our program can help make happen, to protect and preserve our lake.
SPNR and Pure Waters' volunteers will assist in the main project implementation, including financial support, monitoring and outreach. Pure Waters will keep you up to date on the progress of this important project in future articles. In the meantime, please know that SNPR is “off and running!”