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.