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The last wild Finger Lakes

What will be the fate of Hemlock and Canadice?


The wind is blowing the snow everywhere.

Conservationist Steven Lewandowski: "They're not going to make any more Finger Lakes." - PHOTO BY KRESTIA DEGEORGE

Into my face. Down the back of my jacket. Into the camera lens.

The wind is also roiling the waters of Hemlock Lake, which I'm trying, vainly, to photograph.

Every so often, a gust dies down, revealing ravines on the far shore (the western one) studded with what I imagine must be the graceful conifers that the lake takes its name from.

They're not, though.

They're white pine, says Steven Lewandowski, as if he had been reading my mind.

If anyone would know, it'd be Lewandowski. A native of the Finger Lakes (he was born in Canandaigua), Lewandowski knows about as much about this little corner of the world as anyone. With the exception of a few stints living in other parts of the country, he's spent most of his career as a soil and water conservationist in the Finger Lakes and served on the Naples town council.

Currently, he works as a private environmental consultant.

In that capacity, he's helped craft management plans for Keuka, Seneca, Canandaigua, Cayuga, and Honeoye Lakes.

But it's this lake, Hemlock, and its smaller cousin Canadice, that are uppermost in his mind these days.

Nearly two decades ago, Lewandowski founded an organization called the Coalition for Hemlock and CanadiceLakes.

Ever since the late 1800s, the two small Finger Lakes in Livingston and OntarioCounties have formed the backbone of the City of Rochester's water supply. Even today, despite a sophisticated system that was built to share water with the Monroe County Water Authority, the water for the city's southeast and some southeastern suburbs still comes from the two lakes. And during parts of the year, the lakes supply water for much of the rest of the city. The lakes' elevation --- about 700 feet higher than the City of Rochester --- means that gravity took care of water pressure.

The city purchased property in the watershed until it owned the complete shorelines of both lakes, in accordance with state law. It demolished existing structures and let nature take over. Where clearings had been, forest gradually reasserted itself. While the rest of the Finger Lakes were slowly being ringed with cottages and summer homes, Canadice and Hemlock were returning to something like a wilderness.

All the while, the city enjoyed some of the finest water around. It was so pure it was usable as drinking water without even passing through a filter. Then in the 1980s, after a storm caused turbidity that forced the city to issue a boil-water advisory, state and federal governments got involved. Eventually, they convinced the city to build, at considerable expense, a filtration plant at the northern end of Hemlock, the lower of the two lakes.

Observers of the region, including Lewandowski, who had sat on a panel that explored the city's options to deal with the turbidity problem, worried that this would deal a fatal blow to efforts to preserve the wild character of the watershed.

The link might not seem obvious at first. But many of America's first conservation movements were directed at preserving critical resources, and water is at the top of that list. The Adirondacks and Catskills didn't become state preserves simply because of their natural beauty, but because the state's residents and their representatives witnessed the effects --- and economic impacts --- of their degradation firsthand. In the case of the Catskills, the fact that they served as New York City's drinking-water source was critical to large swathes of that region remaining undeveloped. Even today, in large part because of conservation measures, about 90 percent of New York City's drinking water travels from mountain streams to consumers' taps without passing through a filter.

Locally, with a filtration plant in place, Lewandowski and others reasoned, the city would have less incentive to preserve the ecological integrity of the watershed. In fact, they worried, the city might even decide that since the water was being filtered, it could sell the land for development. (Skaneateles Lake, for example, the source of Syracuse's drinking water, is ringed with expensive homes.) It was this fear that prompted Lewandowski to form the Coalition for Hemlock and CanadiceLakes.

Now, unease over the lakes' future is alive again. A water-sharing agreement between the City of Rochester and the Monroe County Water Authority will expire in 2008. Under the current agreement, the city makes a tidy little profit (several million dollars each year) by selling excess water from Hemlock and CanadiceLakes to the county system. But the city's system also faces expensive capital upgrades. The county, meanwhile, is planning a large new intake plant for the eastside suburbs.

There's been plenty of controversy over whether the new county plant is needed. But no one seems to disagree that with the plant's extra capacity --- or even the prospect of that capacity --- the Monroe County Water Authority could force a much more favorable deal with the city this time around.

At a public hearing held by the state Department of Environmental Conservation last November in Penfield, County Legislator Paul Haney went so far as to allege that a plan was already being hatched to transfer ownership of the lakefront lands to the county Water Authority, then sell them to politically connected developers.

"I can tell you for a fact that meetings between well-placed developers with strong ties to the local political machine that controls the Authority have already been held to discuss getting hold of that prime real estate," Haney said.

After the event, Haney declined to identify those developers to City Newspaper on the record.

Even if Haney's claim was based on faulty intelligence, the possibility that those lands might be sold off is a very real fear in some quarters. It has motivated groups like the Sierra Club, and it prompted Lewandowski to revive his coalition.

Lewandowski also spoke at the Penfield hearing, and his remarks were cited in the Democrat and Chronicle's coverage. In the weeks that followed, Lewandowski says, he got half a dozen phone calls and e-mails, mainly from residents around the lakes, wanting to participate in the coalition's efforts.

For now, his loosely-knit coalition is the closest thing to a movement to preserve the lakes.

But other factors are working in the favor of those like Lewandowski who'd like to see the lakes protected.

For starters, there's a city policy adopted by City Council in 1993. In a recent letter to a constituent, a City Council staffmember spelled that agreement out, and did so vehemently.

"As you may know," the letter read, "the City Council adopted a policy resolution in 1993 that spelled out the City's commitment to maintain the Hemlock and Canadice properties in a 'natural, undeveloped state' both to protect the water supply and for the larger environmental impact. That continues to be the City's policy and I can assure you that the current City Councilmembers feel the same as their predecessors in 1993."

"As the negotiations between the City and the Monroe County Water Authority for an operating agreement progress," read the letter, "there may occasionally be media stories that suggest that development of those lands may be an option. President [Lois] Giess and her colleagues have made it clear that they would not support such an option and that such stories constitute idle speculation generated by outsiders with a different agenda than that of the City."

Speaking to City Newspaper, Giess confirmed that City Council's position on development in the watershed remains unchanged.

"We did adopt a policy in 1993," she said. "That's one of our prerogatives. We do set policy for the city."

And while many of the current Council members weren't there when the policy was adopted, they've all agreed, informally, in a Council work session, to maintain it.

"The current Council was unanimous," said Giess. "We felt that we should keep the watershed in its current state."

There is, however, one unknown on the political front. No one knows what the Duffy administration wants to do. The Democrat and Chronicle article quoted Deputy Mayor Patty Malgieri as saying that the administration isn't taking any options off the table. That predictably caused some alarm. Malgieri hasn't backed away from that statement, although speaking to City, she tried to soften its impact.

"I wouldn't say we are considering selling off any of our assets," she said. "At this stage we want to lay out what all the options are. We will eliminate them as we do more research."

Malgieri says the administration is keeping City Council up to date on negotiations with the Monroe County Water Authority at Council work sessions and will continue to do so.

But if Council members have already decided against selling off the watershed lands, why waste time researching any such options?

Malgieri's response is measured, showing respect for City Council's authority to set policy, without relinquishing the possibility that the administration might push Council members to change their mind.

"We would never pursue any options that we had not got their support for," Malgieri says. "We are trying to be good stewards of our assets."

One possible factor behind the administration's coyness is the nature of the city's property holdings in the watershed. The state health department never required Rochester to own the entire watershed of each lake --- which would've been impossibly expensive --- only the shorelines. But since the city had to deal with lots of separate property owners, getting the shoreline meant different things in different places.

At some points, Rochester owns a buffer strip that stretches maybe a few hundred yards away from the shoreline. In other places, to buy the shore, the city was stuck buying large parcels that stretched acres away from the lakes. And to make things still more complicated, there's a patchwork of in-holdings. This means there might be string of privately owned homes hundreds of yards from the lakes while the city owns acres of the hillside above them.

It's not difficult to imagine that the city might want to divest itself of some of that land.

There is another option, one that just about everyone involved seems to agree would be ideal.

"We've always hoped that the state would buy those development rights so it would be permanently protected," Giess.

In fact, the lakes have been near the top of the state's open-space preservation agenda during most of the Pataki administration. Yet despite the former governor's commitment to preserving a million acres of open space during his tenure, Canadice and HemlockLakes slipped through year after year without being added to the state's lands.

"Perhaps with a different governor, it might be more likely to happen," says Giess. That's an open question, though. While new Governor Eliot Spitzer clearly has a green streak, he's got an ambitious policy agenda in other areas. All of that costs money, and Spitzer has promised not to drive up state taxes or debt. Nor does he have the stated preservation goal of his predecessor.

The resignation of the state's Environmental Conservation Commissioner, Denise Sheehan, takes effect this week, but at the time of this writing Spitzer hadn't named her successor. That person will have a big say in what, if anything, the state decides to do about the lakes.

"Whoever that guy may be," says Lewandowski, "we've got to get him to see that this is the most important thing in Western New York. We've got to get bond act money to come west of Syracuse."

But why preserve the lakes at all?

No one knows the value of the city's shorefront properties. Lewandowski says the assessors in the towns have a special designation for city watershed lands that accounts for the fact that they aren't being sold for development. Still, no one disputes that the sale of that land would result in a windfall for Rochester. One glance at property values on neighboring lakes like Canandaigua and Honeoye makes that clear. The city's budget is perennially stretched thin, and it's near its constitutional taxing limit. If the county's sales-tax intercept plan clears the courts and goes forward without an accompanying sales-tax hike, the city would get a substantially reduced amount of the sales tax. That would immediately thrust it past its taxing limit. A revenue source that could bring in millions of dollars with little or no noticeable impact on many city residents could suddenly look a lot more attractive to Rochester politicians.

So why not sell to developers?

Lewandowski has spent a large part of his adult life working to protect these lakes from development, and the question goes to the heart of those efforts. For a few moments, he's silent. But slowly the answers trickle out.

The reasons for preserving Hemlock and CanadiceLakes, it turns out, are the same reasons for preserving exceptional natural places everywhere.

For one thing, they provide habitat for some of New York's most magnificent plants and wildlife --- habitat that's rapidly being destroyed elsewhere.

For years, says Lewandowski, Hemlock was home to the only two known breeding pairs of bald eagles in the entire state. Black bears are thought to frequent the land around the lakes, and there are even rumors of cougar, although the state Department of Environmental Conservation says the animal is considered "extirpated" in New York.

Hugh Mitchell, conservation chair for the state Sierra Club and an ardent proponent of preserving the lakes, adds, "You've got rare plant life in there."

There are old-growth trees --- up to 300 years old or older in a few places --- that escaped logging, first because of their location on one of the region's characteristic steep slopes, then because of the city's ownership. Researchers and conservationists have also found other rare or endangered species there: types of ferns, for instance.

Those plants and animals are there largely because these lakes are the largest wild (or at least semi-wild) area that resembles what the Finger Lakes region would've looked like in its natural state. That alone means that the area should be preserved, says Lewandowski.

"Some exemplary places should be set aside," he says. "If you want an exemplary FingerLake, this is it --- so that in the future someone could say, This is what a FingerLake was like 400 years ago."

Then, as if to underscore the point, he adds: "They're not going to make any more Finger Lakes. There's no other land in the Finger Lakes like this that's preserved."

That's a point that's already understood by local colleges. They're using the lakes as a laboratory, he says, just as the Adirondacks or Catskills or other wilderness areas are used not only to study natural environments, but to compare them to similar landscapes that have been altered or affected by human activity.

There's also another dimension to the areas' wildness. You could label it an aesthetic or almost spiritual quality, Lewandowski suggests.

"It's hard to quantify, but to my eyes there's a lot of beauty here," he says. "And I think a lot of people would agree."

Part of that comes from the area's scope, which is unparalleled in this part of the state.

"Its uniqueness is that it's so big," he says. "It's like canoeing in the Adirondacks" when you canoe here.

Lewandowski says he hopes to see the lakes permanently protected in his lifetime. In addition to the opposition from City Council, two other factors could help ensure that he gets that wish, points out Hugh Mitchell. One is the faltering local economy.

"The jobs aren't there to support new housing out there," says Mitchell. Of course, high-end housing of the kind that would probably go on those lakes doesn't get hit as badly by a weak local economy as typical housing would. But there's still an effect. If the large companies that have historically provided the backbone of the region's economy continue to shed jobs, there may not be enough buyers for fancy lakeside homes --- or at least not at the prices that would make the land attractive to developers.

The second factor is a little more straightforward. If the city ever pursued a plan to sell the land, "I'm sure the Sierra Club and other organizations would sue them to stop the sales," says Mitchell.

"It's not just the local group," he adds. "There are national interests, state interests, and strong local interests" that are monitoring the status of the lakes. If, in fact, local environmentalists could leverage the muscle of national environmental groups, the city might have a tough battle on its hands.

Just about everyone involved, though, hopes it won't come to that, says Mitchell.

"There are so many reasons to preserve this land," says Mitchell.