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Why the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative matters to WNY

The benefits of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are spread across Western New York.

They are apparent to those kayaking on a cleaned-up Buffalo River, fishing in Cattaraugus Creek or biking around Grand Island. The federal program has paid to remove toxins, rebuild habitat and restore wildlife species such as the bald eagle and lake sturgeon.

But now the Great Lakes program faces a budget cut, as it has the previous three years, with President Trump now proposing a 90 percent cut to the program in his 2020 fiscal budget.

Since 2010, more than $2 billion has been allocated among 3,400 restoration initiative projects -- up to $300 million a year shared by Great Lakes states.

"It puzzles me," said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, who's also on the binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative board. "This program has received strong bipartisan support. The White House is increasingly isolated in calling for these cuts, but we can't take anything for granted."

"This has put all Great Lakes communities in a defensive and competitive mindset where we have to fight each other for the dwindling resources in order to achieve restoration in our own community," said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.

Great Lakes restoration

Here are some of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative programs in jeopardy across the Buffalo Niagara region.

Niagara River restoration

One of the biggest ongoing local projects involves the $2.7 million project to restore habitat at four locations.

The projects at Buckhorn Island State Park, Grass Island, Burnt Ship Creek and East River Marsh are designed to improve water quality and restore habitat for terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is implementing the four-year project, which started in 2017.

"The Niagara River is now on the cusp of moving forward with major restoration efforts," said Brian Smith, the associate executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

If the funding cuts happen, the Niagara River won't benefit environmentally like the Buffalo River has, Smith said.

The Niagara River was identified as an area of concern in 1987. Cuts to the program would delay its restoration for years, he said.

Buffalo River restoration

It took millions of initiative dollars to help rid the Buffalo River of a century’s worth of toxins. In the last decade, the program paid for the restoration of habitat at 13 sites along the river corridor between Old Bailey Woods and Canalside.

The next steps in the river’s restoration include assessing the relative success of those efforts.

One of those includes a more than $188,700 three-year survey of wildlife around the 13 sites to determine the restoration's effectiveness. Information gleaned from the survey, scheduled to run through 2021, could eventually be used to de-list the Buffalo River as a federal area of concern.

"The restoration of the Buffalo River, the revitalization of our waterfront, and the recovery of our water-based economy would not have happened without the GLRI," Jedlicka said. "The cost of Great Lakes restoration across the basin is estimated to be tens of billions of dollars. For comparison, the toxic sediment cleanup of the Buffalo River alone cost nearly $50 million, so to have an executive budget proposal that slashes the GLRI down to $30 million to be shared among eight Great Lakes states is incomprehensible."

Outer Harbor restoration

Last year, dredged material from the bottom of a cleaned-up Buffalo River was clean enough to use in environmental restoration work for the first time.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restored a long-lost wetland connection and a fish passage between the northern area of Unity Island and the Niagara River.

Buffalo’s Outer Harbor is the next destination for clean sediment from the regular dredging of the river’s navigation channel. Plans call for a deep slip near Wilkeson Pointe and at the Union Ship Canal to be filled in with sediment to create shoreline wetland habitats.

About $83,800 in GLRI funds were scheduled to go to the Corps of Engineers to prepare project reports, scoping documents and administer public review efforts through 2022.

'Ecological playground' planned for Outer Harbor slip

Native lake sturgeon

The lake sturgeon traces its ancestry back to the era of the dinosaurs.

It thrived in waters around the Buffalo Niagara region until overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation nearly obliterated the species during the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Efforts to restore the native fish, which scientists say still naturally reproduces in the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor, have ramped up in Western New York and the Great Lakes under the initiative.

A nearly $90,000 project implemented through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the health of the lake sturgeon and study its habitat preferences in the lower Niagara River was scheduled to continue through 2020. A separate project is designed to track the movements of lake sturgeon into Lake Ontario from the Genesee River using acoustic telemetry.

Bloater chub

The bloater chub is being restored to be eaten.

And, if efforts by state and federal environmental agencies are successful in restoring the native prey fish back to Lake Ontario’s food chain, it could be a vital boost for the native lake trout and the lake’s ecosystem at large, officials said.

The latest effort – a modest $36,615 project through the Fish and Wildlife Service – would further efforts to rear the bloater chub for stocking into Lake Ontario through 2020.

More fish protection

Myriad chemicals and toxins in Great Lakes waters threaten fish and aquatic life.

A three-year $600,000 project implemented through the state Department of Environmental Conservation involves collecting about 350 samples of young fish from the state’s waters and testing them for PCBs, mercury, flame-retardants and other chemicals to gauge the effectiveness of the state’s ongoing efforts to clean up the waters.

Results would also be used to determine the risks contaminants pose to fish and ascertain what additional environmental restoration remains to be done.

'Happy fish' don't make for a healthy Niagara River

Nutrient loading

Reducing the amount of phosphorus and other nutrients from reaching Lake Erie is part of a binational agreement that includes five states and the province of Ontario.

Excessive nutrients get into the water from agricultural runoff and sewage overflows. They’re suspected of fueling the lake’s annual blooms of toxic algae.

In New York, the continuation of a $300,000 project to obtain data on nutrients and pathogens in tributaries emptying into eastern Lake Erie is ongoing through 2020 by the U.S. Geological Survey. That project is designed to help the state meet its nutrient reduction goals for Lake Erie.

Toxic algae starts to bloom in open Lake Erie waters

Stormwater reduction

When heavy rains come, stormwater systems are overwhelmed.

That leads to high bacteria levels and summertime beach closings.

One way to capture stormwater before it reaches the beach is through green infrastructure projects.

Some $600,000 in GLRI funds were allocated over three years through 2020 to a pair of projects – at Lake Erie Beach Park in Evans and Point Gratiot Park in Dunkirk. The funds would go toward building green infrastructure areas that would reduce runoff at parks and beaches.

If you like to swim at Lake Erie beaches, our wet spring is bad news


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