Our communities, economy and the environment experienced a significant win last month.
After five hard-fought years and a $20 million study that engaged nearly 200 stakeholder representatives and thousands of citizens, the International Joint Commission took unanimous, historic action to protect the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario and the North Country. It sent a new water regulation plan, now called Plan 2014, to the U.S. and Canadian federal governments for approval.
This action stands as one of the singular most important policy decisions of our lifetime. It is the direct result of efforts by north country citizens to bolster our environment and our recreation-based economy. Our leaders and neighbors should be proud of the role they have played in this historic step.
The benefits of Plan 2014 are well researched and well documented.
This new plan will restore wetlands, beaches and other coastal habitats that have been degraded by current regulation. To name a few of the ecological benefits: Wet meadows will increase by 40 percent; northern pike populations will increase by 39 percent; and marsh-nesting birds will make a comeback.
These environmental benefits lead to direct economic advances that benefit our region’s recreation-based economy and quality of life. Healthier lake and river wetlands will support stronger populations of native fish and wildlife, improving the area’s hunting, angling and wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The Nature Conservancy estimates economic benefits, just from improved wildlife recreation, of $4 million to $9.1 million per year, every year.
The battle is not over.
Opponents to the plan remain vocal, repeating mischaracterizations about the process and the plan without offering solutions. New York state has yet to publicly support the plan and may not due to election year politics.
And the parent agency of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. has openly opposed the plan, stating the environment “cannot be accommodated” if doing so is detrimental to commercial shipping.
These factors cast shadows and doubts upon what should be a straightforward task: approval of the plan by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments without delay.
There is hope.
The opponents may be vocal, but their dissent is not widespread. While the opposition is largely located along the south shore of Lake Ontario, so are thousands of supporters of the plan.
For example, the IJC has received 1,000 letters and more than 3,000 petition signatures in favor of Plan 2014 (then called Bv7) from the south shore’s Monroe County.
New York under previous governors has endorsed a modern plan, and we are hopeful it will again under Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have expressed support for Plan 2014 as a balanced solution.
Alone among federal agencies is the Seaway, whose opposition is particularly confounding given the IJC’s conclusion that commercial navigation will not be harmed by Plan 2014. We do hold out hope as the Seaway’s new administrator, Betty Sutton, has repeatedly stated she puts a high value on the environment.
In an interview with the North Country Public Radio last August, she stated: “I am a person who rejects the kind of thinking that we sometimes hear — that it’s either the environment or jobs, jobs or the environment. I’m a person who believes it’s really important that we protect the great assets that we have. … I reject, ‘You’re either for the commercial aspects of the Seaway or you’re for the environment.’”
Administrator Sutton and the Seaway should seize this historic opportunity and accept the science that shows that the current plan is harming the environment and in turn our region’s economy, and that Plan 2014 is necessary to reverse that harm. We will welcome the Seaway’s support for a balanced approach to water levels management.
In the forefront of everyone’s mind who cares about the health of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and the economies that depend on them should be this sobering statement from the IJC’s report: “If such an opportunity is lost due to delayed implementation of Plan 2014, then the next opportunity may not arise for decades.”
Our communities need this. In the river region, our economy is directly tied to our environment.
Plan 2014 will improve both. We can no longer claim that we don’t understand the effects of our outdated water levels plan — we have the data and knowledge we need to restore the lake and river.
Now we just need the wisdom and will to leave a healthy, vital and thriving river to the generations that follow.
The IJC has done its part; now our federal officials must do theirs and implement Plan 2014 immediately.
North Country Perspective by Lee Willbanks, Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper and Save The River Executive Director
Published by the Watertown Daily Times on July 22, 2014