Thursday was the 40th anniversary of the signing of the federal Clean Water Act. After Americas waterways were used for decades as dumping grounds for all manner of industrial, commercial, agricultural and household waste, the act began a restoration of our waters that we benefit from today. Where once most of the nations waterways were literally unapproachable, many are now swimmable, fishable and drinkable again. Many others are on the path to recovery.
As a nation we should celebrate the progress that has been made to heal our rivers and lakes, bays and streams. But as we do, we should also take a moment to consider what remains to be done even in our own backyard.
Thirty-five years ago, Save the River was formed in response to a plan to extend the shipping season on the St. Lawrence River, a plan of dubious commercial value with the potential for tremendous environmental harm.
Just a few years earlier the worst inland oil spill in our nations history had occurred on the river, creating a new awareness of the uniqueness and fragility of the St. Lawrence and the communities that relied on it. Later the challenge was a proposed expansion of the shipping channel, which would have required island removal, dredging and further damage to the already ailing river ecosystem.
In the years since, communities on both sides of the river have come to rely on its majestic passage along their shores. An economy has developed based on the thousands of tourists and summer and year-round residents who swim, boat, fish, hunt, and drink from the river.
Sadly, we now know there are some threats to a healthy river that are masked by the beauty of its surface and shore. Among these are: legacy pollution toxins released before there was a Clean Water Act, such as PCBs from past industrial activities; myriad invasive species that have crowded out indigenous plants and fish and upset the ecological balance in ways we are still discovering; and a water levels control plan 1958DD made necessary by the construction of the Seaway, that has been damaging the river for 50 years.
Today we have what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse the damage done by 1958DD. Simply put, 1958DD has been a slow-moving ecological catastrophe for the waterway it seeks to manage. It has altered the natural ebb and flow of the river and has devastated coastal habitats along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence, slowly but radically reducing species diversity.
An estimated 64,000 acres of wetlands are now dense mats of cattails with the result that the life is being choked out of them.
For a region like the north country, these adverse impacts are felt not just as an environmental loss but as real economic losses as tourism declines and associated businesses close. All too frequently visitors and residents who are negatively impacted by these changes choose to go elsewhere; sometimes for good. In fact, the river region now has some of the highest unemployment in the state. Inaction at this critical juncture could leave 1958DD in place for the foreseeable future.
A new plan Bv7 developed after 10 years of research and consultation with stakeholders all along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence will reverse this damage by halting the trend toward monoculture wetlands. Plan Bv7 will achieve these benefits through a return to more natural levels and flows that are neither extreme nor frequent.
In most years it will provide a longer recreational and commercial boating season by avoiding the rapid drawdown of the lake and river in the fall, increase hydropower production and lead to conditions that rebuild beaches naturally.
We, who love the river and believe it can be restored, call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and join every elected official and candidate in districts bordering the river to support the implementation of Plan Bv7. That would be a great way to celebrate the Clean Water Act.
The writer is executive director of Save the River.