Monday, August 16, 2021

Lesson from Wetland Hydrology 101

Many, many years ago I entered graduate school at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, CT. My graduate interests lay primarily in water resources, so I searched that first semester for a lead professor/advisor in that vast field – and, due to recent retirements, found none.

As luck would have it, a Ph.D. candidate hosted a course in basic wetland hydrology 101 that fall. He was young, energetic, no nonsense kind of person, a stickler for getting out in the field and measuring things like water flow, water inputs, outputs and what was going on underneath our feet and the wet soils he was interested in. He took us to interesting places called bogs, fens, and cedar swamps requiring hip boots. We saw great swamp trees, like tupelos or black gum. We brought back funny looking, stained sketches of bogs and fens, with arrows showing what we thought was the direction of water flow pointing in various directions. I learned that a fen was a kind of boggy wetland where surface and/or ground water flowed through, introducing minerals and oxygenated conditions and thus making a fen somewhat less mineral impoverished than a bog lacking such through flow.

Our teacher didn’t seem greatly interested in wetland botany. He was a hydrologist.  He drilled into our heads that such boggy places did not recharge the groundwater. Instead, the groundwater recharged the wetlands. If the surrounding hydrology – surface and groundwater – was interrupted in some way (as in dams on streams or great amounts of fill for a new housing development upstream), the downstream wetland’s form and function would be substantially altered as well. That lesson was my “take home” from wetland hydrology 101.

Some years later I was introduced to the Adirondacks and luckily got a job with the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Renowned professor (SUNY College of ES&F) Ed Ketchledge was on its board of trustees. In my first or second year I was thrilled to accompany a field visit with “Ketch” to see the endangered plants on the High Peaks summits and then to accompany him (and the equally legendary Greenleaf “Greenie” Chase) to Spring Pond Bog preserve north of Tupper Lake. They had done such field walks and talks hundreds of times, but their undiminished enthusiasm for the botanical rarities of such places they knew so well was completely infectious for a newcomer like me.

I subsequently joined my environmentally inclined colleagues at meetings of the Adirondack Park Agency. Suddenly and for years to come, “wetland hydrology 101” I had been exposed to at graduate school was being applied every month to development permits. The staff that presented about wetland impacts and permit conditions for avoiding them were serious students of all types of Adirondack wetlands and their values. These values were written into the very laws APA was empowered to enforce. Scientific services staff like Ray Curran, Dan Spada, Sunita Halasz, Mark Rooks, Ed Snizek, Kathy  Regan among others, were impressive and the APA members relied upon their expertise. They enthusiastically explained to members (and the public monitoring the meetings) why the size, scope, locations and diversity of the wetlands on a project site mattered.  They and other staff also applied for and received federal EPA grants to study these vast, diverse wetland systems across the Park, thus enhancing the APA’s capacity to plan for the future. They never took their jobs or the wetlands law for which APA was responsible for granted. They embraced it all.

Thus, it was with great dismay that the public learned of the APA staff’’s apparent readiness in 2021 to abandon protective permit conditions imposed by their predecessors to protect a rare wetland and stream system on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake.  Instead of insisting on the same permit conditions their former colleagues had placed here in 1988, conditions intended to avoid big negative impacts to bogs, fens, swamps, streams and the water quality of the lake, today’s APA staff appeared to reverse those safeguards to satisfy the demands of a single lot owner in the Deerwoods subdivision – without so much as a field investigation.

According to a recent lawsuit filed against the APA by neighbors, this spring and summer APA staff amended from their desks the 1988 permit conditions to authorize a septic system and impervious surfaces for a large new house within a hundred feet of this sensitive wetland and stream system. APA even apparently ignored its own regulations prohibiting septic systems that fail basic soil percolation rates, as this one badly would. Trees surrounding the wetlands were taken down by the lot owner for a better view of the lake before a court order stopped the clearing.

If APA staff could so badly fail to inspect, much less ratify, fulfill, and enforce the wetland protective conditions of their predecessors at this sensitive location, where else is such compromising of the Park’s natural resources taking place? That’s a larger question.

The neighbors to “Lot 9” on Upper Saranac Lake had the good sense to hire Ray Curran, long retired from APA, to do what today’s resource analysis and scientific services staff at APA in Ray Brook should be encouraged and expected to do by APA senior staff– field work to determine if the permit conditions of 1988 should still apply. That would mean site visits to document changes over the past 30 years, what is living and growing at the site, to identify and locate the various wetland and stream systems and the upstream hydrological regimes that support those wetlands downslope. Ultimately, before amending the permit as requested today’s APA resource experts should have gone out into the field to confirm if the size and scope of the desired new house, pavement and onsite septic system would still impair or alter those  immediately adjacent bogs, fens and swamps and streams and thus diminish Upper Saranac Lake water quality.

None of this was done by today’s APA, unfortunately. Reading Ray Curran’s report, “Analysis of Potential Development on Lot 9 of the Deerwood Subdivision in relation to ecological communities and wetland values and functions” reminds one that the expectation and expert capacity for such analysis once resided within the APA. Given strong leadership, it can reside there once again.

The Curran report reminded me of wetland hydrology 101 class and my take-home lesson that if the upland hydrology is interrupted, the downstream wetland is degraded. Curran’s report is clear that the diverse wetlands adjacent to Deerwoods subdivision should be given a value rating of 1, meaning that their values and functions cannot be allowed to diminish through new human land use and development. He concludes that if the APA permit amendments for Lot 9 are allowed to stand, the site hydrology will change, the wetland forms and functions altered, and water quality in the entire shoreline ecosystem degraded.

Curran’s enthusiasm for Adirondack wetlands and biodiversity that he demonstrated for so long on APA’s staff is undiminished today. He writes “qualitatively and from a natural history eye, the wetland complex is beautifully interesting and very unusual because of the diverse habitats, location and species of plants and animals that utilize it.” Curran’s report is another fine example of conservation biology applied to real life circumstances in a regulated Adirondack Park. His detailed report and the neighbors who sponsored it reaffirm one’s faith in knowledgeable Adirondack experts willing to apply their knowledge to show why development in the wrong places can be so damaging.

Family of common mergansers swim in marsh ecosystem at Paul Smith’s Visitor Center

And to demonstrate, as Curran does, that if APA’s prior permit conditions were simply followed and enforced in this case then the same house could be built without altering this shoreline wetland and stream system. “Without these special conditions, it is likely that the Deerwood Subdivision would never been approved,” writes Curran. “However, with these special conditions, including the off-site septic location, development could occur without harm.”

Let’s hope today’s APA members tell the staff they must either fully explain why they negated the old permit conditions and thereby persuade decision makers that such a radical change was supported by a change in resource conditions and the law, or they must reapply the reasonable, resource-based 1988 permit conditions thought necessary to protect this wetland by their predecessors.

Photo at top: Fringing boggy shoreline of an Adirondack lake, by Dave Gibson

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

9 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Perhaps with Cuomo’s departure, the APA can regain its former lead role in assessing land use impacts… 🙄

    • Tom B says:

      Ditto on this comment. The APA had become a joke and it definitely was further degraded with Cuomo as governor.

  2. I don’t disagree with you, Dave; this is a good article. I do think both the DEC and the APA have changed for the worse over the last 40 years. A significant factor is the loss of knowledgeable staff and the reduction in staffing. When I was with DEC 87-98, I felt, for the most part, that I had the time and resources I needed to learn how to do my job effectively. I had time to do research and brainstorm with staff, and outside experts. I could research issues, lay out the pros and cons, and seek guidance from above, without the meddling from the second floor.

    I don’t think that is the case any more. The nature of the job has changed. There is no time, and no resources. Staff just rides the crest of immediate attention items, with no time for thought, research and analysis. Plus the intense and constant scrutiny and direction from above.

    Working for DEC was the best job I ever had. But that job does not exist anymore.

  3. Barbara franklin says:

    Why are they not required to provide specific reasons that they have created more lenient permitting of such a critical sensitive part of the wetlands? Why are they not required to put in writing the logic behind their decision? There must be transparency and we must demand an accounting before this waterway is compromised and all other waterways downstream

  4. Patricia Marsh says:

    Everyone in tha Park should read and heed.This precedent setting issue will have lasting impacts !

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Keith Silliman says: “The nature of the job has changed. There is no time, and no resources. Staff just rides the crest of immediate attention items, with no time for thought, research and analysis.”

    > This has been the new wave for some time now Keith, not just with the DEC, but in many areas of expertise and aspects of our society, and dare I say….science, as our last President so very made clear. We’re devolving into anti-science. The corporate news media fits-in very well with this scenario which is a sure sign yet of where this country is headed. I see it, as well as some others who are clear-headed. It’s as plain as day to see where we’re headed.

    “When I was with DEC 87-98…

    > It is not so assuring to hear it coming from someone who was on the front lines, but truth shall fare better for all of us than will fiction so thank you!

  6. Suzanne says:

    David, thank you for this objective and well-written article. One can only imagine that it was some sort of influence and connection that enabled the APA to make this decision to reverse the original permit that was designed to protect this very fragile ecosystem and the waters of Upper Saranac lake, within the Deerwood subdivision. A decision that was made with no transparency, and no ability for public notice comment. And now, imminent danger that will impact not only Upper Saranac Lake but quite possibly the entire ADK park as this precedent setting decision by the APA will now be applied to other sensitive wetlands and fens such as Deerwood.

    I find it unimaginable and extraordinary that the experts within the wetlands and water quality department of the APA would have allowed this amendment to the protective original permit. As you and Ray Curran stated, this area is made up of an inter-digitized underground streams, flowing streams, a fen and hydrology to include Hydric soil’s so that any application of any septic system should not be permitted by existing regulations. Especially since there is an alternative – safer and more effective solution to place a septic system Upland, safely away from the wetlands in the water of upper Saranac lake.

    Let’s hope that the APA rethink their decision and that the influence of the new governor of the state of New York will take heed and do the right thing. Let’s hope that the owner/developer of the Deerwood Lot 9 rethinks their decision and looks to protect this invaluable Wetland of Upper Saranac Lake.

  7. Jess says:

    Protecting wetlands is a constant battle that the public must keep fighting. Once our original wetlands are gone, restoring them to their previous capacity can be difficult if not impossible. Not only this, but building new houses without any charm or history on top of wetlands (often with hundreds of years of history just waiting to be told) is unfortunate and unnecessary. On the bright side, your story about tromping through bogs and fens in waders years ago makes me glad for the wetlands that people can still explore!

  8. John says:

    Wow, very insightful post, thanks for sharing!

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