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DEC issues Great Lakes progress report

The state Department of Environmental Conservation this week released its two-year progress report on Great Lakes restoration, noting 103 of 124 actions have progressed since being written in 2015.

The 20-page report details 2018-20 progress across several projects on Lake Erie, the St. Lawrence River, Genesee River, Black River and the Finger Lakes, as well as the state’s areas of concern listed by the federal government.

Prepared as part of the DEC’s Great Lakes Program, the report is based on the Great Lakes Action Agenda, a set of multi-year restoration and management goals that involve local, state and federal plans. The program and agenda are driven by an ecosystems-based management approach, which prioritizes environmental restoration and resource management simultaneously with community resiliency and stewardship.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the report is reflective of the “integrated” nature of Great Lakes work that considers both people and the environment — recreationists and wildlife habitat, shoreline communities and water quality, for instance.

In the North Country, St. Lawrence River progress included nearing completion of a St. Lawrence River Watershed Revitalization Plan more than 10 years in the making.

Draining through eight counties and nearly 200 towns and villages, the watershed was assessed by local and state agencies for water quality, soil, land cover, infrastructure, population, municipal water laws and pollution. The Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District served as the lead agency for the $500,000 plan’s development, funded by a $250,000 grant from the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, the New York Department of State and matching funds from local environmental groups involved.

The DEC’s progress report indicates a public opinion survey of the watershed and plan — fully drafted in the fall — has yielded more than 1,200 responses.

Farther south, the Tug Hill Commission and its partners celebrated 10 years of implementing the 2010 Black River Watershed Management Plan and a related 2016 Black River Nine Element Plan, based on a federal Environmental Protection Agency nine-part framework for watershed planning.

With headwaters in the western Adirondacks, the Black River Watershed drains northwest to Lake Ontario, covers 1,920 square miles in Jefferson, Lewis, Herkimer, Hamilton and Oneida counties and contains 3,910 miles of freshwater rivers and streams, according to the DEC.

As part of the 2010 management plan alone, 72 actions, including one-time projects and ongoing programs, have been completed since 2010 or are underway, totaling $35,812,470. A total of 29 projects and $3,646,290 have been implemented through the Nine Element Plan.

U.S. and Canadian officials in 1987 listed a total of 43 areas of concern in the Great Lakes basin. Five areas are shared, 26 are in the U.S. and 12 are in Canada. Of the 26 American areas, six were in New York, with five remaining after the Oswego River’s official delisting in 2006.

The five areas of concern — all considered environmental justice areas — are concentrated around the Niagara River, Buffalo River, Rochester Embayment, Eighteenmile Creek and the St. Lawrence River in Massena and Akwesasne. Environmental justice areas are “disproportionately impacted by environmental contamination,” according to the DEC.

The areas are listed and monitored by the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office and the DEC based on beneficial use impairments. The 14 impairments defined by the EPA are any changes — chemical, physical, biological — that “cause significant environmental degradation.” BUIs include fish and wildlife population decline, restrictions on drinking water consumption and beach closings.

The DEC and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in December 2019 finalized an agreement to coordinate a Remedial Action Plan for the St. Lawrence River area of concern, which includes the New York waters of the river from the Massena public water supply intake to the Canadian boundary. The area also covers portions of the Grasse, Raquette and St. Regis rivers near Massena and the Akwesasne territory.

Protective measures for native freshwater mussels in the lower Grasse River and shoreline restoration planning have begun and are expected to continue for the next few years.

Great Lakes Program staff this year will be updating the Action Agenda for the next 10 years, according to Great Lakes Basin Programs Coordinator Donald Zelazny.

“The agenda will aim to be inclusive, accessible and more reflective of the needs of diverse Great Lakes communities, especially those of environmental justice areas,” Zelazny wrote in the progress report. “Addressing the values and needs of environmental justice communities enables us to better engage diverse perspectives, to promote greater innovation and to improve the targeting of resource management policies and practices to effectively restore, protect, conserve and enhance New York’s Great Lakes region.”

The full progress report is viewable on the DEC Great Lakes website. Those wanting to share ideas for the Great Lakes basin should email greatlakes@dec.ny.gov.

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