Last Revised 2/06/01

2. The Watershed

The Cayuga Lake Watershed is part of the Oswego River Basin. The Oswego River Basin in Central New York State is a diverse system made up of many hydrologic components that flow together. Water flows from (1) upland streams down to, (2) the Finger Lakes, then to (3) low-gradient rivers and the New York Barge Canal, and (4) ultimately to Lake Ontario. Within the Oswego River Basin, Cayuga Lake is downstream of Keuka and Seneca Lake. Keuka Lake waters flow into Seneca Lake via the Keuka Lake Outlet. Seneca Lake waters flow into the extreme northern end of Cayuga Lake via the Seneca-Cayuga Canal.

The Cayuga Lake Watershed is the largest of the Finger Lakes, covering 785 square miles (approximately 500,000 acres) of agricultural, residential, industrial, and forest land. Although the dominant surface water feature of the basin is the lake itself, a network of more than 140 streams flow into the lake. The northern outlet of the lake receives about 48 percent of the total runoff from the Oswego River Basin's 5,100 square miles, before it flows into the Seneca River, towards the Oswego River and Lake Ontario. The land area of the Cayuga Lake Watershed includes six counties and 44 municipalities (cities, towns, and villages), and is home to over 120,000 people.

Cayuga Lake is the second-largest Finger Lake. It is the longest, widest and one of the deepest of the eleven Finger Lakes, being 38.2 miles long, 1.75 miles wide (average width), up to 435 feet deep with a shoreline of over 95 miles. This lake's spectacular topography was formed through periods of glacial advance and recession which deepened and widened the Cayuga Lake Valley and smoothed the surrounding hills. Due to Cayuga Lake’s relatively large size and significant depth, water that drains into the lake takes over 10 years to cycle through the lake.

The economic and natural resources found in the Cayuga Lake Watershed are invaluable to residents and visitors alike. Economic resources include agriculture, tourism and recreation, real estate, industry, and commerce. Natural resources include wildlife, parks, fisheries, wetlands, forestry, and water.

The soils of the Cayuga Lake Watershed are among the richest and most fertile in the nation (Cayuga Lake Preliminary Watershed Characterization, 2000). According to the 1992 Census of Agriculture, the hundreds of cash crop, beef and dairy farms in the watershed generate annual receipts of approximately $176,423,000. The watershed's beaches, rivers, and lakes are an attractive vacation destination. In the Cayuga Lake Watershed, tourism and recreational activities include boating, bicycling tours, hiking, sport and recreational fishing, hunting, bird watching, swimming, and camping. On average, proximity to water raises the value of a home by about 28%. Furthermore, houses in better water quality areas are generally worth about 20% more than those adjacent to poorer water quality. The beauty and bounty of the Finger Lakes Region attracts businesses and educational institutions who seek a high quality of life for their employees and families. Studies have shown that clean water and air are the two most important factors in choosing a place to live.

The Cayuga Lake Watershed is an important link in the waterfowl flyway of the Atlantic Coast. There is seasonal use by approximately 314 bird species, including many shorebirds and waders. There are seven state parks and numerous county/town parks that provide public access to the lake as well as preserve the integrity of various natural resources. The watershed supports both warm and cold water fishes, including lake trout and four species of salmonids. There are more than 6,000 acres of high quality wetlands in the watershed along with thousands of acres of valuable forests important for timber, wildlife, recreation, and water quality. Numerous communities and hundreds of households depend on Cayuga Lake and its watershed as a drinking water source from both surface and ground waters.

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CLW IO 2004