All plants and animals need nutrients to survive. But when too many nutrients enter rivers, streams, and lakes, they fuel the growth of algal blooms and aquatic weeds. This results in eutrophic conditions (characterized by frequent and severe algal blooms, low clarity, and a reduction in dissolved oxygen) that are harmful for fish and other underwater life and negatively impact the use of these waters for drinking and recreation.
Before humans built roads, homes and farm fields, most nutrients were trapped and absorbed by forest and wetland plants. As these habitats were removed to accommodate our growing population, nutrient pollution to our waters have increased.
Everyone contributes to this nutrient problem. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two main nutrients of concern in our area, which generally enter our waters through urban, suburban and agricultural runoff as well as discharges from wastewater treatment plants.
Sources of nutrients include:
- Stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces (parking lots, lawns, rooftops, roads) .
- Soil erosion and sediment
- Lawns and lawn maintenance practices
- Failing septic systems
- Pet waste
- Municipal wastewater treatment plant discharges
Excessive nutrients and eutrophication have been identified as responsible for or contributing to the degradation of the majority of water bodies in New York State that are recognized as impaired. (Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation).
Agriculture is the backbone of Cayuga County’s rural economy. Farms provide us with local, fresh, in-season food and beautiful vistas. Agriculture can, however, have negative impacts on water quality if farming operations are not managed with environmental concerns in mind. Improper agricultural methods can elevate concentrations of nutrients, fecal coliform, and sediment in our water bodies.
There are many agricultural practices that can aid in the protection of water quality. Best management practices (BMPs) implemented on farms can protect water quality by reducing the amount of sediment, nutrients and pesticides that run off agricultural fields. Some examples of BMPs include buffers, cover crops, conservation tillage, nutrient management planning, stream-side fencing, and silage leachate collection.
Many of these practices are voluntary as most farms in Cayuga County are not regulated. Large farms with animals however may be regulated as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) (through New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)). Smaller farms with animals and crop farms are currently not regulated in New York State.
According to NYSDEC, a CAFO is a farm that has more than a specified number of animals that are confined for at least 45 days per year. These farms are required to obtain a permit from the NYSDEC, prepare a comprehensive nutrient management plan, and comply with certain practices. In Cayuga County, CAFOs are predominately dairy farms with 300 or more cows.
New York State offers the Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) Program to all farmers regardless of size or type of farm enterprise, CAFOs, non-CAFOs, and crop farmers. AEM is a voluntary, incentive-based program that helps farmers make cost-effective and science-based decisions to help meet the farm operation’s business objectives while protecting and conserving the State’s natural resources. Farmers can work with local AEM resource professionals to develop comprehensive farm plans using a tiered process. In Cayuga County these resources are available through the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Following significant manure runoff events in 2014, a Cayuga County working group developed “Improving Manure Management: A Fourteen-Point Countywide Agenda for Action” aimed at improving practices involving the storage, application, processing, and transport of manure to minimize their negative impacts on water quality. One of the tasks discussed in the Agenda for Action involved developing a set of specific Manure Management Guidelines that the County could promote among farmers. More information regarding these initiatives can be found here.
Keeping your lawn healthy is beneficial to water quality. Healthy lawns can absorb nutrients and sediments before they can enter lakes and streams. Excess fertilizer and pesticides on your lawn can end up in lakes and streams, polluting the water and promoting the growth of algae, weeds, and green scum that interfere with boating and swimming, harm fish populations, and degrade drinking water quality.
The New York State law that restricts the use of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus is aimed at reducing the amount of phosphorus that makes its way to lakes and streams through runoff. Most lawns in New York State do not need additional phosphorus for healthy growth.
Read more on the New York State Phosphorus Runoff Law
Review Frequently Asked Questions about Lawn Fertilizer
Find more information on Green Lawns & Gardens
Clearing vegetation from stream sides or lake shores to create an unrestricted view can damage water quality. This vegetation, also known as a buffer, is the last line of defense before polluted runoff reaches water. Without buffers, polluted water runs directly into waterways, picking up even more sediment as it erodes unvegetated banks. Maintaining or planting a buffer of natural vegetation along a water body such as a lake, stream or wetland can stabilize the banks, filter pollutants and slow runoff.
Pet waste may not seem like a “big deal” to most people, but the accumulated effect of pet waste can have a significant impact on local water resources. The average dog produces approximately 3/4 pounds of poop every day. 1,000 dogs will produce 750 pounds of excrement a day. That’s a lot of poop!
Pets can contaminate water with their waste if storm water runoff picks it up as it washes down the storm drains, drainage ditches and into our lakes, rivers, and streams. Pet waste pollutes water because it contains harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites which can spread diseases and cause human health problems. This can make the water unsafe for drinking and swimming. Pet waste is also high in nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) which feed the weeds and algae in our lakes.
Properly disposing of pet waste may seem like a small issue, but it is a good reminder that we all live in watersheds and what one person does can impact the whole watershed and everyone downstream. You can make a difference by being a responsible pet owner and cleaning up after your pet.