Thursday, August 24, 2023

Wetlands protection

bloomingdale bog

In the protection of its wetlands, the Adirondack Park goes the extra mile, taking a hard look at any sort of activity involving bogs, marshes and swamps of one acre or more in size, or of any size if it happens to be located adjacent to a body of water in which there is a “free interchange of water at the surface.”

Jackie Bowen, director of conservation for the Adirondack Council, said these regulations became all the more critical in May, when the Supreme Court took a swipe at the Clean Water Act, ruling that it did not protect wetlands that were not obviously connected to permanent standing or flowing waters.

Speaking to an online gathering sponsored by Talking Rivers, an organization that promotes river health through science, art and storytelling, Bowen said the “weaker protections open (wetlands) up to fragmentation and water quality risks.”

Building on earlier water-pollution law, the 1972 Clean Water Act protected not just navigable water, but all waters of the United States. Exactly what “all waters” means has put food on the table for many an attorney over the last half century.

In 2006, the High Court itself hedged on the definition, with Antonin Scalia writing that qualifying wetlands needed an obvious connection to standing or flowing waters, while Anthony Kennedy said a “significant nexus” was sufficient for jurisdiction.

Bowen said that lower courts — including those adjudicating a case brought by Chantell and Michael Sackett, an Idaho couple blocked from building a lake-community home by the EPA — typically fell back on Kennedy’s definition, which protected a broader range of wetlands.

In Sackett v. EPA, these lower court rulings were reversed, putting 59 million acres of American wetlands newly at risk, according to Earthjjustice.

Because of tighter state laws, New York’s 2.4 million acres of wetlands — 1 million of which is in the Adirondack Park — are not likely to be affected by the decision. But Bowen said it’s a good reminder that long-standing protections can’t be assumed, and reason to remain vigilant.

“None of this is ever a given,” she said. “We must always use good science to maintain and better protect what we have.”

Sacandaga Lake dam fight

Owners of the 22 megawatt E.J. West hydropower plant on Great Sacandaga Lake and Hudson River-Black River Regulating District are at odds over an annual payment for the water that drives the turbines.

Since a 2002 agreement, Brookfield Renewable U.S. has been paying the district $1.5 million, an amount that — now that the agreement has ended — it wants to reduce to $250,000. The district, meanwhile, has argued for $2.5 million.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ruled that a payment is no longer required following the end of the 2002 agreement, and that the regulating district must keep providing water to the Brookfield plant.

The district has asked FERC to reconsider, saying that without a substantial payment from Brookfield the costs will be shifted to taxpayers.

Floodwaters overwhelm town wastewater systems

In Westport and Ticonderoga over the past month, residents were alerted by the state that their wastewater systems had been overcome by floodwaters.

In Westport on Aug. 8, 50 to 100 gallons per minute of untreated wastewater bubbled up through manhole covers, which were weighted down “to keep solids from leaving the system,” the town reported.

“Pumps are at maximum capacity and can’t keep up; won’t be able to do much until flows drop,” the report says. Heavy rains had also overflowed Ticonderoga’s system in mid-July.

These towns are not alone, as climate change has overrun wastewater plants that were not built with changing conditions in mind.

“Wastewater systems are not designed for this changing climate,” Sri Vedachalam, director for water equity and climate resilience at Corvius Infrastructure Solutions LLC, told the Associated Press. “They were designed for an older climate that probably doesn’t exist anymore.”

Sewage-plant design — usually on low ground near bodies of water — makes them particularly vulnerable.

Photo at top: Bloomingdale Bog trail

This first appeared in the Explorer’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

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