Most folks on the River know me as the Executive Director of Save The River, but I also wear a few additional hats – year-round River resident, summer islander, and boater (of many types, powered to kayak) – along with being an environmentalist and an advocate. Of all of the River issues I encounter, water levels seems to be the only one that, depending on the year, can have a significant, daily impact on each of these parts of my life.
As a boater and an islander, I know that low water levels can be a major hassle. As a year-round River resident, I am keenly aware of the worry that my friends and neighbors who operate marinas or waterfront businesses are feeling. And, as an environmentalist and advocate, I’m deeply concerned about the impacts of an antiquated water levels plan that doesn’t take the needs of the River ecosystem into account.
With this year’s low water, it seems that water levels are at the forefront of almost every River conversation lately. The solution to the problem seems deceptively simple – just ‘hold water back’ for the summer so we can access our docks and then be sure not to let too much out in the winter so water isn’t too high or too low for the next summer. In short, keep water levels stable.
Unfortunately, attempting to stabilize River water levels is one of the most damaging things we can do to the River ecosystem. The River ecosystem, including the wetlands, pike, muskie, and waterfowl, needs more natural flows that provide more natural variability, including some uncomfortably low water and perhaps some uncomfortably high water on a twenty or thirty year cycle. The low water allows a variety of wetland plants to re-establish themselves, which makes those areas more hospitable to native fish species. It is not necessary every year, or even every few years….but maybe every twenty years.
Similarly, high water allows access to spawning areas for fish species, and reduces the dominance of cattails in marshes by allowing mammals such as muskrats to access and eat them during the winter months. This is important for wetland health since it changes the composition of our wetlands back into the diverse, healthy habitat that native fish and wildlife need to survive.
Without these infrequent – but important – highs and lows, we will have a continuation of the destruction of the River’s environment that has been seen over the last fifty years, and subsequent suffering of native fish and wildlife.
Simply put…without natural variability, we will not have a healthy River.
So how do I personally reconcile these competing concerns? On the one hand, more stable water levels will make my life as a boater and islander easier, on the other occasional lower or higher than average water that will ensure the River thrives. I’m very aware of the convenience of stable water levels on the River, but I also know there’s something bigger and more important going on here. It’s something that all of the interests should be able to get behind, it’s doing the right thing for the River itself. For that, we all must be willing to accept some inconvenience.
What I am not willing to accept is the status quo, a water levels plan that delivers neither convenience nor River health and instead gives us low water to serve other interest groups, whether its shipping, hydropower, downstream or upstream interests. We must find a way to move to a new plan that balances the many interests on the River, while providing for the needs of the River ecosystem. After years of talking with the biologists, ecologists, hydrologists, and any other ‘ologists’ I could find about the science behind the various water level proposals, it’s clear that proposed ‘Plan B+’ best balances the many interests on the River and Lake while delivering significant environmental benefits for the River we love.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a big difference for the health of the River by implementing a natural flow plan like Plan B+ and sending the message that our River environment matters. If it matters to you, then we need your help. We are headed into what will be the most important period for this more than decade-long process. Visit Save The River online or at our Clayton office to find out how you can help make B+ a reality. I look forward to working with you to create a healthy future for the St. Lawrence River.
By Jennifer J. Caddick, Save The River Executive Director
Originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, Jennifer has worked for a variety of environmental and conservation organizations in upstate New York and on the Chesapeake Bay. Since 2006, Jennifer has served as the Executive Director of Save The River and lives year-round in Clayton. Her family has spent time along the St. Lawrence River for many years and they are summer residents on Linda Island.
Editor’s note: Save the River has accomplished much good over the past 30 years. In 2004, the Clayton organization was designated the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper and is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. TI Life is pleased to present this essay on an important issue effecting our communities. In Mary 2009 Sarah Walsh presented another STR article in Reporting Trouble on the River.