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Could ‘common tern’ concern stop project to dry up Niagara Falls?

Remember when the common tern was blamed for stopping construction of a signature bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont.?

Well, a lot of birds fly around Niagara Falls. Many nest in the small islands amid the rapids. Plants are rooted on the gorge walls and sustained by the falls’ mist. Small invertebrates live deep in the rocks in the riverbed.

Which raises the question: Could a similar “common tern” concern stop plans to shut off part of Niagara Falls for bridge repairs?

Experts say drying up the American Falls for a short time is unlikely to have dramatic environmental consequences. But still, the effects should be explored.

“It certainly will have an impact, but a localized impact, and I think that’s the big thing to note,” said Helen M. Domske, senior coastal educator for New York Sea Grant.

Any construction work in the riverbed has potential to dislodge pollutants that may be found in the sediment, she said. And it is inevitable that some fish, amphibians or invertebrates in the area will lose their habitat.

In addition to wildlife, plants, fish and other organisms, other potential effects to consider include shoreline erosion from the increased water flow over the Horseshoe Falls, as well as whether the lack of water will crack the rocks or make them easier to dislodge.

But the project area is relatively small compared to the broad ecosystem, Domske said, and she considers what’s proposed a temporary and small-scale disruption.

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, tends to agree.

But because it’s so early in the process of environmental review, the local Riverkeeper organization has yet to take any position in the matter. Still, any short-term effects must be looked at along with any unexpected long-term effects, Jedlicka said.

It may be possible to minimize potential harm through mitigation efforts, which would have to be identified, she said.

“First, do no harm,” she said. “That’s our approach.”

The Niagara River is designated a globally significant “important bird area,” an area that supports breeding colonies and is an important stop for some migratory species because of the year-round open water.

Experts say one reason major consequences will be avoided is because the project won’t turn off the entire falls. Eighty-five percent of the water flows over the Horseshoe Falls.

A cofferdam will divert the 15 percent of the river that goes over the American side to the Canadian side for five to nine months, under the existing proposal for the project.

While it’s not clear how large the scope of the official environmental review will be, the state’s draft design report may offer a glimpse at where some agencies think it’s headed.

“The project would not cause any long-term significant impacts to fish and wildlife,” the report states.

The report also states the work may impact some invertebrates, while migratory birds, wading birds and waterfowl “would experience a temporary disturbance and would be displaced to suitable habitats nearby.”

Most of the bird nesting occurs between Goat Island and the Canadian shores, said Loren Smith, executive director of the Buffalo Audubon Society. Additionally, some birds feed at the bottom of the falls, and the amount of food available there could be affected by the project, Smith said.

At this stage in the process, with only a draft design report issued and as agencies are still looking for project funding, more in-depth environmental studies will provide further information about potential effects that should be addressed, Smith said. He’s confident in the process to weigh the goals of improving infrastructure, access to Goat Island and the experience of park visitors alongside the idea of minimizing effects on the environment, he said.

“It’s all a question of balance,” he said.