Saving a river: Plan 2014 seen as major win for St. Lawrence River dwellers

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS

A long-awaited and much-debated plan to regulate water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River was adopted by the U.S. and Canadian governments Dec. 8. Clayton’s Save the River was among the groups that pushed for nearly two decades for an updated regulation strategy. We sat down with the organization’s executive director, Lee Willbanks, to talk about the environmental and economic impacts of Plan 2014.

NNYB: What is Plan 2014?

LEE: Actually, it’s pretty simple. It’s just a plan to manage the way water is released or retained by the Moses-Saunders dam.

NNYB: Why is the proper regulation of water levels on the St. Lawrence River so vital?

LEE: Well, I think you can see that by going to almost any bay on the river and thinking of where it was before the dam was built and where it is now. I know a lot people don’t have that perspective, but over the 50-plus years since the dam has been built, we’ve lost approximately 64,000 acres of wetlands throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. Okay, so what? A 70 percent decline in the northern pike population, a precipitous drop in terns. And all the species that depend on those open marshes that, because we kept water level static, or fairly static, they’ve been just covered in cattails. And so now northern pike that wants to spawn goes and bumps her nose on those cattails and her eggs are released in deeper water and lost. That’s where we’ve gotten to with the old plan. We realized, actually many people realized, about 30 years ago, that something was wrong and so this long-term effort started to get to a new plan that made more sense for the river and pretty much all the creatures, up to us, that depend on it being healthy.

NNYB: An updated plan for the regulation of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario has been called for for more than two decades. What took so long?

LEE: I think it took so long because, one, you have to build a consensus around, is there a problem? You know, maybe the comparison is to some other diseases. It took us a while to realize that something bad was going on and it wasn’t a natural process. I mean, there are natural evolutions to all water bodies, but beginning back in the 1980s biologists, fish biologists and wetland researchers began to realize something was happening. So then you have to build a body of literature and science to study it. I mean, the list of people who have been involved in this effort and contributed is quite large and there were lots of studies. So then you have to engage the political process, because, as you know, it’s an international body, our boundary. So you’ve got two countries, we’ve got lots of interest groups and we’ve got the political processes in both countries that sometime move in different directions. So, about 1999, Louis Slaughter and Congressman McHugh decided there was an issue and appropriated funds for the study through the IJC, the International Joint Commission, which regulates or has jurisdiction over all the boundary waters between the U.S. and Canada. And so, that process took time. And then you have to build a consensus and you have to get people on board. There’s 15 years of study and consultation and then there were public hearings. Quite frankly, the IJC got it wrong the first time, in 2008, when they proposed a plan that was worse than what we even had before then. So they had to go back to the drawing board. So I mean, you’re just talking about trying to move a tremendous number of people to the right conclusion and sometimes it’s exhausting and takes a long time.

NNYB: You’ve referred to the previous regulation strategy as “a slow-moving ecological disaster.” What does that mean?

LEE: I think it means what I referred to before. The gradual, almost frog-in-the-boiling pot of water kind of loss. Again, it started in the 1960s really, early 60s, when 1958-D, go figure on the naming, came into effect and we began to hold the water levels in a very tight range and it just took years and years for that to have the effect it did, of causing the wetlands to lose the open water portions, the muskrat population to collapse. But yeah, it was definitely slow and creeping and every year we waited we’ve added to that 64,000 acre figure, so it takes a while sometimes for those changes to be recognized.

NNYB: American Rivers has placed the St. Lawrence River on its list of the most endangered rivers in the United States. Is the adoption of Plan 2014 going to get the river removed from the list?

LEE: It absolutely will. The amazing thing about the American Rivers designation — and this was the second one for the St. Lawrence River — the first one came back when the IJC was contemplating a plan but had not yet recommended one. So this one came because the plan had been recommended, it was accepted as scientifically correct for the river and yet nothing was happening. It had been referred to the Canadian and U.S. federal governments June 17, 2014. So in the beginning of 2016 it was like something needs to happen, we have to do something. The American Rivers designation is based on a couple of criterias and one is the kind of damage we’re talking about was being caused to the river. The second is, are you at a point where a policy decision could change that. It was like, absolutely, that’s where we are. So when we asked and talked with them about it, it was essentially a no-brainer. And because of that designation and the way it highlighted the sort of indecisive position both governments were in, I think we got a lot more traction on the issue and December 8 we got the plan. So, it seems to have worked

NNYB: How long will it take for positive changes to the river’s ecosystem, such as the restoration of wetlands, to begin?

LEE: I wish it was immediate, but it took us 50-plus years to get in this mess, it’ll take us a while to get out. I can say that for some of the interests the plan also benefits, like recreational boating, had the plan been in place this year, we would have seen higher waters through the fall. For the non-environmental segment of the river-loving public there would have been an immediate payoff. I think for the wetland clearing, you’re still going to see a slow, steady movement, but you know we’ve got to rebuild populations of muskrat, because that’s what helps us clear those wetlands. The anglers won’t see an explosion of northern pike next year. I’m sure they wished they would. You know, we’ll begin to notice, I think fairly immediately, that things are a little different.

NNYB: You talk a lot about the northern pike population, but is the muskie population in the same category? Are they affected by this? 

LEE: They are. Their decline was unfortunately dramatically hastened by the introduction of the invasive VHS, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, which is still in the population, but doesn’t seem to be wreaking the damage and havoc that it did before. I think because the river ecosystem is very large and complex and has lots of species that are interdependent, when you have something like the water levels issue, and you’ve lost habitat for the top predator, like northern pike, those kind of impacts ripple through.

NNYB: What is the hope for the long-term environmental prospects?

LEE: I would love to to say that, jeez, we can close up shop, we’re done. But sort of going back to your other question, how did we get here and how long will it take, I think we’re recognizing whether its Flint, Michigan, or places in Africa, heavily industrialized places, you can screw freshwater up in the blink of an eye. Just ask West Virginia, where you had a spill and the capital city couldn’t drink the water. We continue to find ways to do that to ourselves and then the cleanup always takes so much longer than the screw up. So, I think because people are becoming more aware the long-term prospects are good, but I think we have to stay vigilant and really continue the process of educating people about how you can harm the water that we all rely on.

NNYB: Lana Pollack, chair of the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission, said in April that Plan 2014 was “being held hostage” by the shipping industry, which feared it could result in artificially low water levels. Are the shippers’ concerns valid?

LEE: First, full disclosure, Save the River has always had a challenged relationship with the shipping industry. I will note that both Terrence Bowles of the Canadian Seaway Corporation and Betty Sutton on the U.S. (St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.) side issued statements saying that Plan 2014, as approved on December 8 was good for the environment and good for shipping. So, the shippers did okay

NNYB: How about the concerns of residents along the south shore of Lake Ontario, who fear high water levels will lead to shoreline erosion?

LEE: I don’t want to minimize their concerns. I think I’ve said in the past that I get it, people have inherited property, they’ve built. I think there were some false assumptions perhaps, and things municipalities allowed, that come into play. One of the most vocal opponents, a woman who was featured on the first page of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, it appeared dire, her house is very near to the water and it looks threatened, but she received five variances from the local government to do that. Perhaps the most offensive one is her septic system is below the mean water line and that’s just wrong. So they’re sort of saying we’re orphans, we killed our parents, now we need some help. There’s also been a consistent overstating of what the plan does. Depending on which forum they’re in, it’s either a high-water plan, which I get it — were it a high-water plan — because the river used to go much higher before the dam, that would be frightening, or if they’re talking to rec boaters or sailors, it’s a low-water plan and they’re afraid people can’t get into the tributaries. But, point of fact, it really is that the highest the plan allows is less than a tennis ball in height and that’s as we know it on a dynamic system. So, to say that it’s going to be feet higher and consistently higher is just wrong. So, I’m sympathetic, I understand the intensity because their homes are there, they’ve made an investment, but they’re living next to a very dynamic system and there’s no plan in the world that can be adopted that’s going to stop the wind from blowing, the rain from coming down and from the water occasionally coming up on shore. You build, you plan for that.

NNYB: How might the plan affect recreational boating?

LEE: Most years, we’ll have a slightly longer season, which has been one of the principal complaints along the river, that come the end of August, something magic happened and suddenly they had to release water at the dam. You know, in any given summer or spring, it’s going to be a complex interplay of what we have for snow cover that’s melting, how quickly it’s coming in, what the ice cover was, evaporation, and then the contribution from the upper lakes into Lake Ontario. But it appears, the way the plan is modeled out will have occasional lows once every 10 or 11 years, but most summers it’ll be like we have it now. We’ve had lows in the past and we’ve had highs in the past.

NNYB: Should the plan result in benefits to the area’s tourism?

LEE: Well, we certainly think so. Worldwide, people are realizing just the value of healthy water or healthy waterways. It’s hard to put a dollar value on it, particularly in an area like ours, which is rural and smaller and doesn’t have a huge built up year-round tourist infrastructure, But we do know that we have some of the best fishing in the world. We know that with the 1000 Islands, kayaking — boating is a huge draw — when you’re named the best archipelago in the U.S. that means something. So, will we see the sudden South Florida-style tourism industry? I don’t think so, but what you’ll see is a shoring up of the sort of small-scale tourism economy that we have and you’ll see people coming to it to bird, to fish, to boat, whatever.

NNYB: Why should people who live far inland, outside the St. Lawrence River basin, care about the river’s regulation?

LEE: We were talking about this earlier. Twenty percent of the world’s fresh water flows by my door. We’re sitting on top of a very finite resource. We effectively collected over 36,000 signatures (in support of Plan 2014). I would be hard-pressed to find 36,000 people between Massena and Cape Vincent. There are a lot of people who signed on to support Plan 2014 who come, not just from New York State, but from Pennsylvania and other places because they do want to come here and enjoy and appreciate fresh water. This got the attention of people in other parts of the Great Lakes because these kinds of issues are just going to keep coming. This was a peaceful resolution of a boundary issue between two great nations, protecting a significant source of fresh water. So, if you don’t care about that, I don’t know what you would.

NNYB: What’s the plan to get Plan 2014 in front of the people that are coming to this area to visit, to experience the beauty of what we have here? Is there a plan in place to help educate those that are visiting us? 

LEE: I think what we’ll do, we’ll continue to do what we do, which is more to raise awareness just on the river, the value of the river as a freshwater habitat. We talked and wanted to support indigenous species, the muskie, the northern pike, those kind of things that draw people. We’ve had a problem even before the plan was adopted, and when you try to talk to people about something called Plan 2014, if you can’t grab it in a sentence or two they start to glaze over and it’s very complex. So, I think more than focus on a bunch of charts and graphs that say, if the water’s at this point and it’s raining this much, Lake Ontario will do this, we’ll just continue to reach kids and adults about how great it is to have this water body right here and available, and the need to protect it.

NNYB: There are perennial calls to “optimize,” or extend the Seaway shipping season, possibly to include winter navigation. What are the environmental concerns regarding this?

LEE: It’s a fight we’ve had and it’s a fight that Save the River won, prior, but as we all know, these things can pop up again. I do take note that Canada just approved some new ice breakers for use on the Great Lakes and on the northern seas. Fortunately, I think economics worked to our advantage here because it’s costly. The river, hasn’t frozen really well in the last 10 years, and then we had two years where you could have probably built a highway across it. Shippers who are leaving Europe want certainty; they want to know that they can get through. So I think that sort of keeps it from going. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense economically, we know it doesn’t make sense environmentally, so we hope common sense will prevail.

NNYB: The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, which would have resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard, not the Environmental Protection Agency, having primary control over ballast water discharge regulations, was recently struck from the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Does that settle the issue?

LEE: No. I guess that means that I’m going to employed for life. There’s every prospect of that bill coming back and it is absolutely horrible. The Coast Guard does a fantastic job. They are responsible for the safety and efficacy of all of the equipment on a ship and they do that really well. I mean, they understand what the rigors of sea-faring life are on equipment. They are not an environmental agency, they don’t set standards and that’s why we have an EPA. If you take them out of it you lose that expertise. I think you would see immediate problems arising from that. So, yeah, it’ll come back and we’ll keep fighting.

NNYB: Save the River has neither come out in support of or in opposition to several wind projects proposed in the St. Lawrence River region. Does the agency anticipate taking a stance?

LEE: The last big project that was going through the Article 10 process, we did actually intervene, we were part of the PSC service list and when the company submitted their application we tore it apart. Part of that was because it was just horrible. I think we are supportive in general of energy that doesn’t come from carbon. However, we think it should be appropriately placed and appropriately sited. We have consistently said that we do have a firm position: that if you’re going to build projects in an area, particularly an area with the intensity and number they’ve proposed along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, down the river, you can’t do it just project by project. There’s a mechanism in New York State, called the generic environmental impact statement and that’s where you can look at multiple projects or multiple phases of a single project as if they were all done at one time. To us, that’s the only way to accurately assess what is going to happen if you build these out.

NNYB: With the adoption of Plan 2014, what’s the next big challenge for Save the River?

LEE: I think the next big challenge for Save the River is to, one, rebuild our energy. It was a long, tiring fight. Our mission statement is to preserve, protect and restore, so that’s a big challenge. I think we talked about oil shipments, we talked about invasives, but we didn’t talk about the other success we had recently, which is microbeads. Two and half years ago, almost three years ago we introduced the issue to the river community at our winter conference. Last December, the United States banned the introduction of microbeads — on a time scale, but it’s done. And Canada just did it. You know we spoke about the Montreal sewage dump, one of the most offensive, obscene assaults on fresh water in this area in a long time. And while the river doesn’t flow backwards — it wasn’t going to impact us — it is the St. Lawrence River and for us, it stands for the billions of gallons that are being dumped from Lake Superior all the way down. That stuff eventually goes past our door.

NNYB: How did a municipal law attorney from the south become a champion of the St. Lawrence River ecosystem?

LEE: Very honestly, I think serendipity. At any point in my previous, in the resume before Save the River, I probably wasn’t ready for this job. I’ve got to tell you, it’s the greatest job ever. The title of Riverkeeper is tremendous. It’s a little humbling, but I do think it was sort of a progression.

NNYB: Do you ever get out on the river just for fun?

LEE: Not as much as I ‘d like. I will say this, anytime I get out on the river, it’s for fun. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had an unfun day on the river and I can’t think of one. You can be on a boat and close your eyes and be anywhere in the world and envision just total peace and quiet.