All the counties, towns, and villages within the Seneca Lake watershed are being asked to join as voting members of the Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization in a Memorandum of Understanding for the protection and improvement of Seneca Lake’s water. These number 40 municipalities in the five counties (Chemung, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, and Yates) with jurisdictions that geographically fall within the Seneca Lake Watershed, which includes all of Keuka Lake’s watershed.

So far, Yates County, the towns of Milo, Potter, Starkey, and Torrey, and the villages of Dundee and Penn Yan have all joined. The Town of Jerusalem and Village of Dresden are still to decide. The towns of Middlesex and Italy are outside the watershed area. Only Barrington and Benton have so far indicated their unwillingness to join as participating members.

Benton Town Supervisor John Prendergast says he has attended some of the SWIO meetings, and the town may be open to joining in the future; but Prendergast fears the good intentions of SWIO will expand over time to become an “autocratic, mandating authority. My concerns are protecting the right’s of the town’s citizens and their agricultural interests,” says Prendergast.

According to SWIO, the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan was funded by a Local Waterfront Revitalization Grant (LWRP) through New York State Department of State. This plan was written by three partner organizations: Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council and Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board. The plan is an update of the 1999 report, “Setting a Course for Seneca Lake,” in which an intermunicipal organization named Seneca Lake Area Partners of Five Counties (SLAP-5) was formed. 

The MOU states, “With the culmination of the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan, it is in the best interest of the water quality of Seneca Lake to replace SLAP-5 with an intermunicipal organization of the five counties and 40 municipal governments...within the Seneca Lake Watershed to implement the recommendations of the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan.” 

The members of SWIO intend it as regional alliance among local governments and county programs “to continue exploring joint local, state, federal, and other funding opportunities; and to obtain public support for programs that implement the mission and goals of the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan and all updates and successor plans,” according to the MOU.

According to Mark Venuti, chair of the Seneca WIO, State Sen. Pam Helming states that the state budget has allocated $110 million in Clean Water funds to go to preserving sources of drinking water, and $200,000 of that is earmarked to hire a Seneca Watershed Manager, and funding program efforts. Venuti says the Finger Lakes Institute will provide office space.

Each member municipality shall appoint one member to participate in regular meetings and report actions to their local government. One representative from each of the regional planning boards (Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council and Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board), one representative from each county Soil and Water Conservation District, and one representative each from water quality interest groups such as Finger Lakes Institute and Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association may be ex officio members of the organization.

In the MOU, members agree to:

• Work together to protect the water quality of Seneca Lake, which in turn protects the quality of life for residents and the economic viability of the region.

• Participate in regular meetings.

• Work to implement recommendations of the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan’s goals and objectives.

• Participate in and provide watershed stakeholders with meaningful training opportunities.

• Seek funding opportunities to meet the goals and objectives of the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan and all updates and successor plans.

• Strive to update and augment the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan regularly as needed.