Along with New York State’s 1996 Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act came discussions among several long-time Cayuga Lake watershed residents. They talked about creating a watershed-oriented organization aimed at protecting Cayuga Lake that would be competitive for Bond Act and other funding. Over the years there had been many individual group efforts aimed at lake preservation, but there never previously had been an organization with a focus on the watershed as a whole.
In 1997 the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network was unofficially born and by mid-year a steering committee began meeting monthly, chaired by James C. White, retired Cornell professor. The vision for the new organization was further developed at a conference hosted by the Finger Lakes-Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance and during the first “Neighbors Around Cayuga Lake” mini-conference. The Cayuga Nature Center and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cayuga County were instrumental in providing administration. The steering committee agreed that the new organization would:
- Focus its efforts on the entire watershed rather than on lakeside properties;
- Establish a Board of Directors with balanced representation from the three principal counties in the watershed with opportunities for representation from the other watershed counties that have less land in the watershed;
- Include all major watershed interests;
- Open its membership to individuals, families, organizations, businesses and local governments who have a stake in the use, prosperity, protection and environmental and economic sustainability of the watershed;
- Serve as a constructive, informed, collaborative advocate for the economic environmental sustainability of the watershed.
Later that year, John Fessenden, dairy farmer in Cayuga County, became chair of the steering committee. Under his leadership the committee drafted a mission statement and bylaws, secured startup funds, received a certificate of incorporation from New York State as a not-for-profit educational organization, and formally assumed the name of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network. Funding support came from Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund, the Open Space Institute, and the NYS Legislature thanks to the Honorable Marty Luster.
In August 1998 the first annual meeting was held at Goose Watch Winery in Seneca County. A Board of Directors was established, chaired by Gene Hocut, retired manager of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. That fall our newsletter, Network News, was launched, and the Network set sail.