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State revises plan for rock reef near boating hangout Grass Island

After pushback from boaters, the state has revised its plans to build a rock reef near Grass Island, one of the few good anchoring spots for recreational boaters in the Niagara River.

The reef, which could be in place by 2021, would be closer to the island than originally proposed, but it will still leave boaters facing slightly deeper water than they do now at a site that has become a popular gathering and party spot.

"It’s better than completely blocking it off to everybody," said Craig Witt, president of the Western New York Personal Water Craft Owners.

"It’s the only place in the river where you can get out and enjoy a sand bottom," Witt said. "Obviously, taking any of that away, I’m sure, rubs some people the wrong way. Compared to what the original plan was, this is a pretty good compromise."

"It’s really just an update to the current plan based on new data and new information, but I do think it’s a win-win for all," Grand Island Councilman Michael Madigan said.

Two months ago, Bill Fortier, head of the Niagara River Recreational Community, told The Buffalo News that he was willing to take the state to court to block the original reef plan.

Fortier's group played a major role in discussing the revision with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. He said he's on board with the outcome.

"I knew we were not going to walk away completely satisfied. It was a compromise," Fortier said. "They (State Parks) don’t want to call it a compromise; they want to call it a revised plan. I’ve spent a lot of time spreading this word around that we are somewhat satisfied. There still may be a lawsuit from somebody. I don’t know."

The lay of the land

Grass Island is about 100 yards off Buckhorn Island State Park on the north shore of Grand Island, a short distance east of the northbound North Grand Island Bridge.

It was once nearly oval, according to old aerial photos posted on the State Parks website. But because of erosion, the island today is lobster-shaped, with a small bay on the east side between the claws, and significant shrinkage on the northwest corner, too.

The main attraction for recreational boaters is shallow water for wading in and a sandy bottom.

At present, the water is about 2 feet deep at the anchorage, according to Fortier, whose boaters' group worked with the state in revising the plan.

"You can bring your grandkids and it's safe," he said.

If the rock reef is 50 feet east of the island, the water available to power boaters would be about 3 feet deep. Even so, "it'll be too deep for some people," Fortier said.

If the reef had been built 200 feet from the island, the water would be about 5 feet deep, Fortier estimated.

Grass Island provides spawning and nursery habitat for muskellunge and northern pike among other fish, according to a statement from State Parks.

It also provides feeding and nesting habitat for waterfowl, including the pied-billed grebe, listed as a threatened bird species by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Also, thousand of purple martins roost there at night during their annual migration.

Habitat loss in the area is one reason the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listed the Niagara River among its areas of concern.

"Through a series of rock reef structures, this change will allow further protection of this critical spawning habitat from erosion due to waves, wakes, ice scour and human impacts," State Parks spokeswoman Angela Berti said.

The areas of shallow water and vegetation cover about 2.3 acres, within a state-regulated freshwater wetland of underwater vegetation that covers more than 20 acres.

The $1.1 million restoration plan, to be funded by the EPA, includes the installation of fill and additional plantings in some of the areas that have been lost or submerged in recent years.

Originally scheduled for this fall, the construction won't begin until September 2020, meaning things remain as they are for the rest of this boating season and for most of the 2020 season, too.

Other reefs are to be built on the north and west sides of the island. The tops of the reefs are supposed to be at or just above the surface of the water, when water levels are at the long-term average.

The revised map of the Grass Island restoration plan. (Image courtesy of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

High water will submerge the reefs. Fortier said that makes them a navigation hazard, but Berti said the reef on the east side of the island will be planted with vegetation that is expected to grow to a height of 1 to 4 feet, and every reef will be marked with sign posts extending several feet above the water.

Madigan said one of the factors that enabled the state to alter its plans was the discovery of the exact location of the town's sewer outfall pipes, located just east of Grass Island.

"They sent divers down to look at where the sewer line went, and instead of having a 100-foot buffer on either side, they significantly reduced what the buffer is, which does end up preserving most of the shallow water that’s where the recreational boaters would be," Madigan said.

"We were able to positively locate it, and that enabled us to get away with a smaller buffer," Berti confirmed.

A good place for a party

Boaters, like most people, enjoy a good party, and Grass Island has become a good place to find one.

"Grass Island gets pretty packed," said Witt of the Western New York Personal Water Craft Owners. "You go up there on a Sunday, there’s 50-plus boats there, there’s people everywhere."

"It's one of the most popular recreational boating areas within 100 miles of here," said Madigan, the Grand Island councilman.

A couple of weeks ago, a band played on a pontoon boat, said Fortier of the Niagara River Recreational Community.

There's even the nautical equivalent of a food truck. Witt said food and ice cream often are sold on weekends from a boat called the Snorkel Dog.

"There’s no current out there. It’s a beautiful sand bottom. It’s really the last spot in the whole river where people can get off their vessel and enjoy," Witt said.

He said Grass Island also serves a safety function for boaters.

"It’s really the last stop in that whole section of the river before Niagara Falls," Witt said. "If somebody runs into issues with their vessel, taking on water or whatever, this is at least a spot where you can get out and check things from a safety perspective."

But if Niagara River boaters decide after the state project that they don't like Grass Island anymore, no one is sure what will happen.

"The question becomes, where do boaters go? Are there going to be impacts elsewhere that may have similar conditions, maybe not as good?" Witt asked.

He said some Niagara River boaters like Motor Island, about 1,000 feet off Beaver Island State Park between Grand Island and Tonawanda. Witt speculated that might become more congested if boaters leave Grass Island.

State Parks still must complete its plans, win permits from the DEC and the Army Corps of Engineers and seek bids from contractors before the work begins. But for now, the Grass Island issue might be settled.

"I’m not saying the battle is over, but it has at least reached a point of agreement," Fortier said. "It is a compromise. I never expected even to get this."

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