Open water

Grim news by the bucketful on America’s shriveling water supplies. For a long look at the dusty Western states, see this past weekend’s NYT Magazine. Or how about the crispy, bone-dry Southern states? Or if you prefer to stay closer to home, see today’s story on the drought-shrunken Great Lakes. Or you can read about Mrs. Mecomber’s trip to dried-out Trenton Falls on West Canada Creek (with some neat photos of old industrial ruins).

Despite the drought, Upstate New York cities and towns will continue to be identified with bodies of water in a uniquely pervasive way. New York has river towns (Rochester, Binghamton, Utica, Watertown, etc), lake towns (Geneva, Jamestown, Skaneateles, Sylvan Beach), canal towns (too numerous to list), even waterfall towns (Ithaca, Niagara Falls). One of the things I find unique about the Syracuse area is that it’s a lake city, an old canal town, and yet has a definite river-culture too (and all three come together in the Inner Harbor, which is a subject for another day). It’s hard to think of too many Upstate population centers that don’t have some kind of window on the water.

These various bodies of water are usually of such a size, shape or length that communities alongside them can’t claim exclusivity. The Finger Lakes, for example, have remained surprisingly free of the air of being a vacationland for the very rich — they have such long shorelines that access can’t really be hogged, and there is still a sense of abundance and a public quality to them, or even a wild quality sometimes. Even Skaneateles Lake, which has only one major community (most Finger Lakes have more than one), is seen as a public resource, being the city of Syracuse’s water supply. But while we worry often about the consequences of polluting clear waters, I wonder if we ought to also consider the risk of the subtler poison of possessiveness.

Cazenovia is an upscale lake town just to the east of Syracuse. Unlike a lot of lake towns in Upstate New York, there’s only one community on the lake, which is not very large, but is very pleasant. Cazenovia and its lake get more than their share of bad press. Not because the lake is polluted, but because it’s clean and the people who run Cazenovia think it ought to stay that way, to the point where Cazenovia Lake has been pretty much declared off-limits to non-Cazenovians. Although a state boat launch and public fishing access pier (Helen L. McNitt State Park) is being readied, it’s still difficult, if you’re not a local citizen, to put a boat in there. There’s also no swimming at the town beach for non-residents. The fear of dirty Syracuse diapers washing up on the beach sends a shudder through some local citizens; that shuddering evokes scorn from some (like my father, who never has a nice word to say about the village when he passes through); yet it’s hard to argue that civic groups like the Cazenovia Lake Association don’t do a good job looking after the water.

Claiming jurisdiction over waters is not necessarily spiritually destructive. Sometimes it appears to be necessary. Reasserting a degree of authority over Onondaga Lake is one of the aspects of the Onondaga Nation’s land rights action, and this is probably not just about having their voices heeded about matters related to its cleanup, but because the lake has a spiritual importance that non-Haudenosaunee people probably can’t fully understand. But I think most non-Native observers would say that the Onondagas’ words about the future of the lake have been carefully inclusive, keeping the door open to many possibilities both economic and environmental. (I think Syracusans sometimes forget that Onondaga Lake, far from being a self-contained toxic puddle, is connected to the Great Lakes system and therefore to the whole world of water.)

What’s the line between a sense of community ownership, and a too-harsh exclusiveness? In the future — on a much larger scale — Upstate New York communities of all sizes, perhaps even the state of New York as a whole, may have to wrestle with that question. If we ever became water-masters in a parched continent, what kind of stewards would we be… not just environmentally, but on the human level?

In the meantime, climate change continues to build to a slow boil. According to a recent article in the Post-Standard, Cazenovia Lake is covered by ice an average of 16.6 fewer days each winter than it was 150 years ago.

6 thoughts on “Open water

  1. Robinia

    Very nice post– came here after reading the NYTimes piece on the Great Lakes because I was sure you would note it and have some interesting thought on same. While swimming in Cayuga Lake alone for as far as I could see today, I must admit to having some distinctly possessive thoughts. Although, I was at a public-access location. October swimming is getting easier than it used to be, but very few people have caught on to that.

    For those who want to do something about global climate change, maybe even in Skaneatles: take a look at

  2. Ellen Post author

    Thanks for reposting the link, Robinia.

    There is a new story in the NYT about the drought in Atlanta here:

    Gotta love this part-

    The response to the worst drought on record in the Southeast has unfolded in ultra-slow motion. All summer, more than a year after the drought began, fountains blithely sprayed, football fields were watered, prisoners got two showers a day and Coca-Cola’s bottling plants chugged along at full strength. In early October, on an 81-degree day, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million gallon mountain of snow.

    I wonder how vulnerable Northeastern states are to this kind of unchecked presumptuous stupidity?

    As long as I’m rounding up additional links, here’s Fault Lines on the situation at Hinckley Reservoir in Oneida County.

    And then there’s this one:

    Ever wonder whether the first thing a politician says – the thing that lands him in hot water – is what he really thinks? The hurried I-take-that-back explanation that follows seems somewhat less sincere, calibrated to mollify, not tell the truth. Something like that may have been at work with a recent comment by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic candidate for president. In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun earlier this month, the governor suggested that the United States needs a “national water policy” adding that “states like Wisconsin are awash in water.”

    What did I tell you – it’s now time for a “National Interest Water Transmission Corridor” just like the “National Interest Energy Transmission Corridor” that the anti-NYRI people are confronting. “Break out them big straws, boys! Let’s PAR-TAY!!!” (PS: Don’t expect White House and Congressional Democrats to have any different attitude toward that than the GOP has had. If it’s politically expedient for them, they’d agree to it)

    (Or is this too revealing of MY fear of “outsiders”?)

  3. Simon St.Laurent

    I share the concern about outsiders taking water, but I wonder what the other options look like. My best guess, unless we find a magic energy source for desalination plants and pumps, is that a lot of people move to be near the water supply in the not-so-distant future.

  4. Robinia

    The interesting thing about agricultural water use is that, where subsidized by the government, the use of piped water for irrigation in a dry and sunny climate (like, say, Central California) allows for better and more stable cropping under “conventional” (non-organic) systems. So, in an industrial agriculture model, even as oil rises in price, you move the water to the sunbelt and grow the food in the Central Valley. The people get a cut on the fed-subsidized water, too, and continue to bid up housing prices on the coast.

    Unless, of course, the drought gets so bad that the houses burn, or the flash floods get so bad that the houses slide down the hills in the mudslides, or something. Nowhere to run from climate change, really. But, I think there may be more pressure for those pipelines to the desert before we see Vegas on Lake Ontario (now THAT would be a change for Oswego, wouldn’t it?).

    The international agreement protects the Great Lakes, and that is good…. I think we should get busy with treaties with the Haudensaunee for joint use that prohibit removing water by any means but natural watershed drainage from the lakes in NYS. We could agree to let them share the open water for canoeing or something– but, they get to share “all of it,” so none of it can be taken away. I think we have some old, broken treaties that promise that, already.

  5. Ellen Post author

    Robinia, sadly I am in agreement with you re: pressure for removing water via pipelines. (And Simon, sadly I think people will continue to stay away from NYS unless Western water bills start to rival New York tax bills.) I speculated on this many moons ago (here). Massive public works projects mean jobs, jobs, jobs – and political benefits for promoters of said projects.

    Of course, the federal government would have to be in a position to fight not only certain states, but Canada as well, unless of course, Canada’s politicians get their piece of the action.

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