TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. ––The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT) and the DEC announced last Tuesday a conservation easement on 126 acres of land in the Six Mile Creek Watershed. This latest conservation is part of a larger project to protect and keep pure the City of Ithaca’s drinking water source.

This acquisition adds to a previous conservation easement of a little over 13 acres in the town of Dryden, along Six Mile Creek’s banks. Now the protected lands include farm and woodland that stretch into the hamlet of Brooktondale. 

Photo via the City of Ithaca

With an easement, the land remains in private hands — and in the case of this conserved land, there’s allowance for a home to be built on the site — but the deal is that future use of the property is limited. In exchange, the property owner gets a payout. If they want to sell the land, they have to sell it with the conditions of the easements attached. 

All in all, FLLT has successfully protected over 26,000 acres of the land in the Finger Lakes Regions, which is an area larger than Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  Of that, the Land Trust said 1,986 of those acres are in the Six Mile Creek watershed, the city of Ithaca’s drinking water source.

This endeavor is being funded in part by the City of Ithaca, and  New York’s Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP),  which the Land Trust actually took part in developing. WQIP was established to administer grant funding for projects that aimed to directly protect drinking water sources and has so far awarded FLLT $641,000 in grant funding.

Land conservation is a pretty effective way to improve water quality by utilizing what is termed, Ecological Services, or just letting Mother Nature do her thing. Intact watersheds purify the rainfall runoff that flows through their tributaries, creeks, wetlands. The runoff picks up chemicals, excess nutrients and sediment that gets absorbed into the ecological communities along the creek, cleaning it before it enters open water, or ever before entering Ithaca’s Water Treatment Plant. 

The Director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, Andy Zepp, characterized this type of conservation as an investment in the future which, in practice, is akin to assembling pieces of a puzzle slowly over time. 

The Six Mile Creek Watershed is characterized by residential properties stitched together in a patchwork of undeveloped land. As a tool of conservation, easements shine in the Watershed’s varied land-use patterns. 

“There are really two other tools. One is regulation; The city could regulate the entire watershed, but that would be very difficult. And the other would be just buying it all,” Zepp said, which is not as cheap as it sounds.

But for all the reasons a landowner may be convinced their land is better off conserved than developed, it isn’t exactly in their financial self-interest to do so. The Land Trust, Zepp explained, doesn’t focus its efforts on property owners that aren’t in the position to restrict how they use their property. He said, “We just have options, and we hope that conservation, perhaps with compensation, will be equal to your best option.” He added, “And we have a good success rate. A lot of people  do want to do the right thing.” 

Although the Six Mile Creek Watershed is not a heavily developed area, FLLT and the City of Ithaca are trying to get out in front of that possibility before it ever becomes a problem. Zepp said that housing developed inc critical watersheds create a lot of risk through their septic systems. Wastewater containing pharmaceuticals, and the other undesirable substances we flush in our homes, can leach out and enter streams. “So one house, not a big deal,” said Zepp, but when communities in those key places in the watershed swell in numbers, “It’s kind of death by a thousand cuts.” 

Besides providing added filtration to Ithaca’s drinking water supply, conserving land along Six Mile Creek can also benefit the health of Cayuga Lake. Nutrient rich runoff is tied to the Harmful Algal Blooms (HABS) that the Finger Lakes residents have grown accustomed to every summer and fall.

The causes of HABS are mixed and myriad, but at the center of these toxic blooms are the combined effects of nutrient-loaded runoff, and drained wetlands; A “drained wetland” describes much of the area Ithaca now spans. Describing the impact developing wetlands has had Cayuga Lake’s water, Zepp said, “It was essentially like removing a kidney.” 

Just as buying the entire Six Mile Creek Watershed isn’t a tangible option, neither is looking at Ithaca proper for ambitious conservation projects. “We’re not going to restore downtown as a wetland,” said Zepp, “It’s thinking about what are the strategies we can do? And a lot of that will happen further up in the watershed.”
The Land Trust has set its sights on the Six Mile Creek watershed as a long term conservation project, and Zepp shared that there are likely more easements coming this year. While this most recent conservation deal in the Dryden and Brooktondale areas is noticed as it announced, it will essentially disappear from view, which is sort of the idea. Zepp said, “One day at some public meeting I’ll pull out a map people will go, wow, that’s why it stayed so undeveloped.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn