New York Needs To Be A Local and National Player In Restoring and Protecting the Basin

New York Needs To Be A Local and National Player In Restoring and Protecting the Basin

By: David Higby

Regular readers of this newsletter need no reminders about the myriad environmental problems facing the Great Lakes Basin, the persistent ones that go unattended as well as the new ones that crop up.Twenty-five years ago, for instance, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that laid out 14 beneficial uses to evaluate the health of the Lakes. From that evaluation, the Canadian and American governments eventually listed 43 geographic Areas of Concern (AOCs) in the Basin. Despite the fact that 28 million Americans rely on the lakes for their drinking water, the American AOCs still are in need of a great deal of work.

More recently,wetland protection in the U.S. suffered a major blow in 2001 when the Supreme Court issued the SWANCC Decision (for the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County which brought the suit), a case that is widely interpreted as removing “isolated wetlands” from the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The Great Lakes watershed is one of the areas most affected by this change, since it is home to many of the estimated 20 million acres of previously protected water bodies that are now exposed to development and other degradation.

If the public policy logjams that have plagued Great Lakes issues are to be relieved, it will take regional, federal and local efforts by organizations and governments working in coalition, and individually. New York State, for a number of reasons, including those that are geographic and political, will need to show leadership in addressing the Basin problems. New York’s wetlands, for instance, especially those now judged to be “isolated,”are particularly at risk – the state long ago ceded a considerable portion of its wetland protection authority (anything under 12.4 acres) to federal regulation. Of the state’s 2.4 million acres of wetlands, just over half are in two regions, the Adirondacks and the lake plains. The latter are principally the areas in and around Lakes Erie,Ontario and the Finger Lakes, all of which are included in the Great Lakes watershed. Since the Adirondack region is regulated separately as part of the Adirondack Park – a six million acre carefully zoned public and private preserve where wetlands over an acre are protected – New York’s Basin wetlands make up the lion’s share of its unprotected water bodies.

New York has no regulatory “SWANCC fix,” but both houses of the state legislature have introduced legislation that would bring wetlands under state protection. Moving the bill through the fractious legislature (each house is firmly controlled by different political parties) will require considerable effort by a coalition of parties interested in preserving the state’s Great Lakes Basin wetlands.

One good model for this effort is provided by the recent Bush Administration decision not to change Clean Water Act rules. The rules changes could have eliminated federal protection for up to 60 percent of the nation’s wetlands and streams. That turnaround in water policy came after the proposal met intense opposition from environmentalists, scientists, hunting and fishing groups, 39 states, and over 230 members of Congress from both political parties who expressed their strong desire to see protections for the nation’s waters remain strong.

New York has six of the American Areas of Concern (AOC), including the Niagara River, the Buffalo River and the Rochester Embayment. One of the state’s AOCs, the Oswego River/Harbor, involves upriver pollution on Lake Ontario’s second largest tributary and affects a drainage area containing 1.2 million people. The Remedial Action Plan for this project is ready to be implemented, making it a prime candidate for becoming one of the first American AOCs to be delisted.

This, however, like all Basin restoration projects will require money. Federal help may be on the way as two similar Great Lakes funding bills are working their way through Congress. Both New York senators are co-sponsors, and one of the prime sponsors of the House version is Representative Thomas Reynolds, a New York representative whose district includes a substantial Lake Ontario shoreline. “With $7 billion being spent to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, $8 billion to save the Everglades and $2 billion to restore San Francisco Bay,” Reynolds recently told the Great Lakes Commission in Washington, “the Great Lakes deserve that same level of commitment.”

The proposed restoration funding would, of course, address many other pressing problems in the Basin, such as controlling invasive species and developing sustainable energy programs. Addressing AOCs and protecting wetlands may be the two poster child catalysts for addressing the long list of Great Lakes Basin environmental tasks, and leadership by New York could prove pivotal in this effort in the 2004 legislative season.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.