During the1970s, the last remaining pair of bald eagles in New York State nested on a forested ridge high above the south end of Hemlock Lake in the Livingston County town of Springwater. They did so because of the lake’s isolation and abundance of fish, their two principal needs. Since 1876, the crystal clear waters of Hemlock Lake have served as the primary water supply for the city of Rochester, southern Monroe County and some of northern Livingston County. In 1917, water from the outlet of neighboring Canadice Lake was diverted into Hemlock, enhancing the total supply by 25 percent. Both lakes are protected by 7,000 acres of wild and undeveloped watersheds, owned by the city of Rochester. Now there is concern that these watersheds may not be sufficiently insulated from future development as the cash-strapped city pursues new sources of revenue, and the demand for resort property skyrockets.
Two unique Finger Lakes
In the 1880s, Hemlock Lake was a recreational hotspot, even more so than Conesus Lake. Its shores were lined with 80 cottages and summer homes, and several resort hotels. A railroad ferried tourists the 30 miles between Rochester and Hemlock Park at the north end of the lake, and a steam-driven tour boat cruised its 7-mile length. But not long after Rochester began drawing tap water, the booming shoreline development threatened to jeopardize its purity.
Of the 11 Finger Lakes, Canadice is the smallest at 3 miles long and the highest in elevation at 1,100 feet. Hemlock is 200 feet lower. Both lakes are nearly 100 feet deep. They are the only Finger Lakes to exist in a wild state and, as this is written, Canadice alone is free from zebra mussels, a now-too-common invasive species. Altitude was the deciding factor in tapping these lakes because water could be delivered to Rochester, nearly 500 feet lower than Hemlock Lake, by gravity flow. Considering 1870s’ technology when everything was dug by hand, the water system even by today’s standards is an engineering marvel. It was built to last: Most of the original conduits, piping and tunnels are still in use. The gravity advantage, which provides excellent water pressure, is especially beneficial in view of today’s energy costs.
By 1896, human activities along Hemlock’s lakefront were degrading its water quality, so the city began acquiring shoreline properties to control their use, a process that took 55 years. Homes and cottages were demolished or moved. Agricultural land and logged hillsides were replanted with trees until all of the land bordering both lakes, which the city now owns, eventually became wild again. Land owned by Rochester, however, represents only 25 percent of the total watersheds of the two lakes; the rest is private. In 1931, the state legislature adopted Rochester’s Watershed Rules and Regulations, which gave the city some control over privately owned property within the watershed limits as well.
Rochester has the right idea
Rochester has always been an outstanding steward of the land. Donald Root has been the city’s watershed conservationist for over 20 years and oversees a complex land-management plan. He knows the watersheds like the back of his hand and can recite biological, historical and hydrological data on any aspect of the city’s operation. According to Root, forest and recreation management are the two primary watershed protection efforts administered by the water bureau. Limited timber harvests, directed by a consulting forester, are a minor but important component of the plan, which specifically addresses the thinning of aging plantations. The agency also monitors activities on private properties to ensure that they are compliant with the watershed rules and regulations.
Rochester has been generous in allowing the public access to its lakes and forests, and even encourages activities such as canoeing, fishing, hunting, hiking, and bird watching. Twenty miles of logging roads have been converted into a system of hiking trails. The watersheds have been designated an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society, and host songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey. The uplands are home to black bears, coyotes, red and gray foxes, whitetail deer, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys. Both lakes offer good fishing for brown trout, lake trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pickerel and panfish. Rare and delicate plant life can be found in a number of isolated locations throughout the watershed area.
A Watershed Visitor Permit, which details the use, restrictions, and prohibitions in effect, is available free of charge online or at the kiosk at the north end of Hemlock Lake. “It must be carried by at least one party member while using city property,” Root advises. A uniformed patrolman is on duty to check permits, enforce the rules, and answer questions. Recreation on the city’s property is playing an important role in gaining public support for preserving these wild resources, an issue that has become a hot topic lately.
For almost 100 years, tap water drawn from Hemlock Lake was so pure it didn’t need filtering, but a 1980s storm caused enough turbidity that the city issued a boil-water advisory. New federal regulations kicked in, which required that all public water drawn from surface sources be filtered to remove the microscopic suspended particles that cause cloudiness in the water. Such turbidity interferes with proper disinfection. Construction of a multimillion-dollar water filtration plant at the north end of Hemlock Lake began in 1991. It became operational in 1993.
The construction of the plant ignited speculation that Rochester might consider selling some of its watershed property. State health regulations require that municipalities own a minimum of 200 feet of protective shoreline bordering any public water supply. In places, Rochester owns 10 times that much. It seemed logical that because the city was filtering its water, the need for so much watershed property became unnecessary. While the city claims that it has not considered subdividing any of its land, there have been rumors of sweetheart deals between the city and unnamed developers to do exactly that. To dispel those concerns, Rochester City Council passed a resolution in 1993 to maintain the watersheds in a natural and undeveloped state. Council President Lois Giess recently reaffirmed that the current city council’s position remains the same.
Bob Morrison is the director of the City of Rochester Bureau of Water and is responsible for its entire operation, including water production, treatment, distribution and engineering. He said that the city is in discussion with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to see if a transfer of holdings, or even just development rights are options that could preserve the watersheds while transferring the annual $600,000 tax burden to another agency. He stated that so far, the parties have “agreed to agree to continue the status quo” concerning the watershed management plan, and he is hopeful that serious discussions are pending.
TNC’s Executive Director Jim Howe concurs. “The Nature Conservancy has spent the last 11 years working to facilitate dialog between the city and the state,” he said. Both he and Morrison see the state as the preferred buyer because of its strong conservation priority. In addition, TNC has acquired 1,100 acres of watershed property from private owners in the last five years and is working on deals for 1,400 more. Those lands will be turned over to the state if and when a disposition is reached on the city property.
Paul D’Amato, director for DEC’s Region 8, is confident that development is not a threat. He said the current state administration is hoping to make a deal with the city, and the governor and DEC commissioner are both onboard with the idea. He explained, “DEC is excited and prepared to do everything in our power to preserve this unique and special resource.” He then referred to a stack of letters his office had received from members of the TNC, Sierra Club, Adirondack Mountain Club, Coalition for Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, and the surrounding towns and counties, all of which favor DEC ownership of the watersheds. “It’s as universal a one-sided view as I have seen, a classic win-win situation,” he said.
D’Amato pointed out that an outright purchase of the watersheds would not be cheap. The city and state have each undertaken independent appraisals to determine the value of the property and the state’s revenue sources are under study. However he said, “Funding would not be an impediment.” Although details of a DEC management plan have not been finalized, the two lakes would remain a water supply.
“Over the past 130 years, Rochester has provided pure and wholesome water from Hemlock and Canadice lakes for our city’s residents and businesses. Our water bureau has been a tremendous steward for our watershed,” said Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy. “Moving forward, our top priority will be the continued preservation of our natural resources.”
“The Hemlock-Canadice lakes have been listed as a priority project for the state since the beginning of the State’s Open Space Conservation Plan in 1992,” stated DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis. “The unique resources of the two lakes, the only two undeveloped Finger Lakes, help define the natural character of the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. We are committed, along with the city of Rochester and all the stakeholders, to the long-term conservation of this magnificent ecosystem.” That should be good news for the nesting bald eagles. Both pairs.
by John Adamski
John Adamski, who lives in Dansville, is passionate about outdoor activities including fishing, hunting, hiking and wilderness camping. Visit his wildlife photography website at JBAdamsGallery.com.