Cayuga Lake's natural beauty is captivating, from its southern headwaters, which form some of the region's most spectacular gorges and waterfalls, to its northern outlet at the beautiful Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.


North end of Cayuga Lake - photographed by Bob Pfeiff


What is a Watershed?

A watershed is the total area of land that drains into a body of water such as a stream, river or lake.

Cayuga Lake Watershed

Cayuga Lake's watershed is the largest of the Finger Lakes, covering 785 square miles (approximately 500,000 acres) of agricultural, residential, industrial, and forest land (view Cayuga Lake Watershed Map). Although the dominant surface water feature of the basin is the lake itself, a network of more than 140 streams flows 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.

Counties in Watershed
Tompkins Tioga Seneca
Cortland Cayuga Schuyler


Cayuga Lake

Cayuga Lake 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) and up to 435 feet deep. This lakesís 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 Lakeís relatively large size and significant depth, water that drains into the lake takes over 10 years to cycle through the lake!


Cayuga Lake: Quick Facts
Length 38.2 miles
Mean Width 1.75 miles
Maximum Depth 435 feet
Shoreline 95.3 miles
Time for water to cycle through 10 years

The economic and natural resources found in the Cayuga Lake Watershed are invaluable to residents and visitors alike.


Economic Resources











Agriculture The soils of the Cayuga Lake Watershed are among the richest and most fertile in the nation. 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.

Tourism & Recreation

Beaches, rivers, and lakes are the number one vacation choice for Americans.  In the Cayuga Lake Watershed, tourism and recreational activities include:
  • Boating
  • Bicycling Tours
  • Sport and Recreational Fishing
  • Waterfo wl Hunting
  • Bird watching
  • Swimming
  • Camping
Real Estate 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.
Industry 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.

Natural Resources

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Wildlife Important link in the waterfowl flyway of the Atlantic Coast. 
Seasonal use by approximately 314 bird species, including many
shorebirds and waders.
Parks Seven state parks and numerous county/town parks provide public
access to the lake as well as preserve the integrity of various natural
Fisheries Important habitat for both warm and cold water fishes, includin g lake
trout and four species of salmonoids.
Wetlands More than 6,000 acres of high quality wetlands.
Forestry Thousands of acres of valuable forests important for timber, wildlife, recreation, and water quality.
Water Numerous communities and hundreds of households depend on Cayuga Lake and its watershed as a drinking water source from both surface and ground waters.


Why Worry?

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has identified Cayuga Lake and its tributaries as having impairments to water supply, fishing, fish propagations and survival, aesthetics, boating and bathing.

Associated pollutants include nutrients, sediments/silt, oxygen demand, pesticides, thermal changes, water level/flow pathogens and unknown toxins.

Numerous watershed issues are either directly or indirectly related to these water quality concerns and need to be addressed to maintain the vital economic and natural resources of the Cayuga Lake Watershed for current and future generations.

Home // Mission Statement // Watershed Management Plan //
Watershed Issues
// Watershed Characterization


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CLW IO 2004