By Grant Wilson and Darlene Lee
What if the Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York State could gain rights recognition? With rivers gaining legal rights throughout the world, legal rights for lakes may become the next great rights-based movement.
The Beautiful Seneca Lake
Seneca Lake is the largest of the Finger Lakes and the deepest lake located entirely within New York.[i] Because the lakes are long, narrow, and north-south, much like fingers when seen from the above, mapmakers named them “Finger Lakes.”
The Finger Lakes are known both for their beauty and some of the local industries that thrive in its unique microclimate, including winemakers and farmers. Seneca Lake, the second longest of the Finger Lakes, provides drinking water for over 100,000 people.
Seneca Lake is about two million years old, when glaciers up to two miles wide carved out the lake through a series of massive advances and retreats.[ii] Originally, it was part of a group of north-flowing rivers, but eventually formed into a standalone lake.
Seneca Lake supports diverse aquatic species. This include coldwater fish such as trout and Atlantic salmon in the deeper waters and smallmouth bass and yellow perch in the shallower waters.
Seneca Lake has a typical aquatic population for large deep lakes in the northeast, with coldwater fish such as lake trout and Atlantic salmon inhabiting the deeper waters, and warmwater fish such as smallmouth bass and yellow perch inhabiting the shallower areas.[iii]
Senecas and the Six Nation Confederacy
The six indigenous nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy lived in the region for thousands of years being displaced by European settlers. According to the date provided by an oral tradition, the Seneca joined the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in 1142 AD.[iv]
The Great Law of Peace represents one of the earliest examples of formal democratic governance and thought to be an inspiration for the American Constitution. It is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America.[v] The five founding nations were the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca. The “Six Nations” formed in 1722 after the Tuscarora joined the confederation.
Seneca Lake takes it name from the Seneca people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, who lived in villages along the lake’s shores. Haudenosaunee means “people of the Long House.”[vi] Today the Seneca Nation has three reservations two hours’ drive from Seneca Lake[vii] with over 45,000 enrolled Haudenosaunee lived in Canada, and about 80,000 in the United States. [viii]
The Seneca Nation describes itself as the “Keeper of the Western Door.” It is the westernmost of the six nations. Seneca also refer to themselves as O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced: Oh-n'own-dough-wahgah) or "Great Hill People." Today, they have a population of over 8,000 enrolled members.[ix]
Four decades of pollution of Seneca Lake revealed in 2016
Seneca Lake suffers from numerous threats and ongoing sources of pollution. As one example, documents released in 2016 by the environmental advocacy group Toxic Targeting highlighted the extent of Seneca Lake pollution.[x] The document revealed that a salt mine had been discharging chloride, brine, and hydrologic oil into the lake without permission.[xi]
To give another example, a 2017 report showed an increase in phosphorus levels and bacterial contaminants in streams that flow into Seneca Lake. Of those give streams tested, five had phosphorous and/or bacteria levels beyond the limits set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC), as revealed in the study by the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association (SLPWA) and the Community Science Institute (CSI).
These increased levels of phosphorous caused harmful algae blooms in the lake, which contaminate water and pose health risks to humans when inhaled or coming into contact with our skin. They can also cause eutrophication of the lake, killing aquatic species. The DEC’s Chief of Lakes Monitoring and Assessment Scott Kishbaugh described the dangers of algae blooms: “Lake residents, visitors and pets should avoid contact with any surface scums or heavily discolored water, and they should seek medical assistance and contact the local health department if they experience any symptoms from blue green algae exposure (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin or throat irritation, allergy reactions or breathing difficulties.”[xii]
Plan to create central gas storage hub at Seneca Lake defeated
A significant threat to Lake Seneca arose from the planned construction of a methane gas storage tank right next to the Lake. Federal regulators had approved its construction despite warnings from experts on geological risk. [xiii] Wine, tourism, and environmental groups, amongst others, teamed up to stop this dangerous project.
The storage area was to be located near a few dozen salt caverns on Seneca Lake’s western side, posing a threat to the lake’s sensitive ecosystems. The storage would also be only three miles north of the village of Watkins Glen, posing a risk to local residents.[xiv]
In the face of local community activism, Arlington Storage Company, a subsidiary of Crestwood Midstream, finally abandoned its plan to expand natural gas storage in unlined salt caverns on the west shore of Seneca Lake in Schuyler County after a six-year battle with local activists.
In July 2018, Basil Seggos, New York state's environmental conservation commissioner denied Crestwood Midstream Partners' nine-year push for a permit, writing that "The project before me involves significant adverse unmitigated impacts with respect to local and regional community character in this area of New York State."[xv]
“This is a victory for the people of the region who have fought for years to protect Seneca Lake and the Finger Lakes from industrialized gas storage,” said Yvonne Taylor, vice president of Gas Free Seneca. Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, has been representing Gas Free Seneca in its fight.
How Earth Law could help restore Seneca Lake
Pollution in Seneca Lake presents a severe public health hazard and a danger to wildlife. Securing legal recognition for Seneca Lake’s rights could benefit humans and nonhumans alike.
Seneca Lake faces threats from bacteria, algae, chemical spills and excessive salinity. Local environmentalists have done significant work over the last few years to raise awareness of the lake’s problems and look for solutions.
However, these challenges will continue so long as we operate in the same flawed paradigm of treating nature – including our lakes – as property to be exploited for profit. This flawed mindset, deeply embedded in our legal and economic systems, fails to treat nature as the life-giving and rights-bearing entity that it is.
Legal recognition of Seneca Lake’s rights to thrive, evolve, and perform its natural functions would address the pollution issue by strengthening existing protections and putting the burden of proof on would-be-polluters. And rather than being able to degrade Seneca Lake for short-term economic interests, its rights to health would be guaranteed. These rights would be enforced by legal guardians who would represent the lake in the courts. Finally, anyone who harms Seneca Lake would have to make the reparations necessary to return the lake to health.
What is Earth Law and how could it help Seneca Lake?
ELC is laying the groundwork for a significant shift in how the law addresses questions of natural protections and environmental integrity. Changes that recognize the inherent rights of species and ecosystems will create more effective and durable mechanisms for protecting the natural world.
Beginning with one lake or river and extending locally creates both community commitment to the environment and governmental protections that span jurisdictions and support a cleaner and healthier environment. Victories at the local level also build interest and a sense of momentum about our work – as time goes by and more local governments grant rights to local ecosystems, the idea gains in political credibility and a groundswell of support that can translate into motion at the state and ultimately federal levels.
Work in the U.S. as well as other countries does not happen in isolation: victories anywhere help build international norms, and the political will for collective solutions to global problems. Four rivers now enjoy rights recognition: the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Atrato River in Colombia, the Villacabamba River in Ecuador and now the Amazon in Colombia.
Which four lakes will be the first to have legal rights? It could be one of the Finger Lakes. Or, if you are interested in giving legal rights to a lake that you work to protect, please get in touch with Earth Law Center to help.
Possible Earth Law approaches for Seneca Lake
To give readers an idea of what a rights of lakes campaign might look like, here are a few options building towards a rights-based paradigm for Seneca Lake:
A binding law establishing rights for Lake Seneca
A binding law establishing rights for all of the Finger Lakes
Either of the above but a non-binding resolution
In addition to any of the above, working with local tribes to establish rights for the Finger Lakes through their governance.
Seeking to allocate water rights to be held by rivers themselves within the above watersheds.
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A note on nomenclature
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is also known as the Six Nations. The name “Six Nations” was used by English-speaking European settlers. French speakers knew the Haudenosaunee as the “Iroquois.” Haudenosaunee is the name preferred by the people themselves, and so is the best name to use.[xvi]
On their website the Seneca Nation advises that in all cases, native people prefer to be described using the name of their nation or tribe. This is better than lumping them all together under a label such as Native American or American Indian.
Preferences about use of the words "tribe" and "tribal" vary among indigenous people across the United States. The Seneca Nation, for instance, prefers nation; rather than tribe (ie: the Seneca Nation Council; not the Seneca Nation Tribal Council.)[xvii]