Balancing wastewater plant and wildlife
WATKINS GLEN--Knowing the most important natural resource the area has to offer is water, the committee of legislators, variously-talented experts, county employees and other individuals who comprise Project Seneca has expressed a strong commitment to protecting and capitalizing on the natural environment in Schuyler County. The two interests go together, because a compromised environment could also negatively impact tourism.
High on the to-do list, because it's not only necessary but it's also a project that will make other things possible, is a new waste-water treatment facility serving both Montour Falls and Watkins Glen. Project manager Rick Weakland says the new plant will avoid 30,000 pounds of contamination into the lake that the old plants could not handle. Supporters of the project say the new facility will be able to eliminate most of the phosphorous entering the lake and have secondary and tertiary treatment capabilities."
Phosphorous, combined with other nutrients in the water can lead to harmful algae blooms, Weakland explains. The plant will also eliminate chlorine, among other contaminants, before it can be discharged into the lake. Its design meets new environmental standards that are not yet in force--but are expected--as environmentalists examine contaminant levels in the Great Lakes, which are possibly as challenged as the Chesapeake Bay area used to be. The plant will also be capable of being retrofitted for additional treatments in the event new requirements are instituted down the road.
However, this project is facing some environmental challenges of its own. A pair of bald eagles have a nest in the marsh area; more recently, notes Montour Falls Mayor John King, long-eared bats have been mentioned. "That's a new one," he says. "We haven't even talked about that yet."
"The eagles and long-eared bats are not that much of a surprise," Weakland says. "We're trying to preserve the [wildlife] population rather than cause other impacts on them."
The Syracuse-based engineering firm Barton and Loguidice, which is consulting on the project's design, has an in-house wildlife biologist, Johanna Duffy, who examined the area for potential impacts, consults with the Department of Environmental Conservation and recommends project modifications. "Usually there's some sort of environmental consideration or restriction, especially if there's going to be new development on a site that's vegetated. We have seen an increase in projects where bald eagles have to be considered, because their numbers are increasing. It's not always easy to figure out what a species might or might not do, but we do our best to identify what the potential impacts are and try to come up with avoidance and mitigation projects."
For the eagles, the approach was two-pronged. Bald eagle expert Peter Nye was invited to visit the area from Albany. Nye was responsible for the reintroduction of some bald eagles into New York state, a project so successful the state is now home to more than 300 breeding pairs. Bald eagles were removed from the national endangered species list in 2007, though in New York the population is still considered fragile. Nye recommended constructing an alternative nesting site for the eagles, and was gratified to later see the eagles defending this new roost from ospreys, though so far the eagles have not yet decided to reside there. To allow the eagle family a stress-free window of time to raise their young, all noisy aspects of construction--and the initial construction activities can't help but be noisy, because they involve felling trees, building the access road to the plant and driving piles to stabilize the building site--have been put on hold until after the resting season.
While long-eared bats have not been identified in the Queen Catharine Marsh area, it's the sort of habitat they prefer for roosting in the warm weather months, so the project was further put back, this time until Oct. 1, to accommodate their needs. The mosquito-eating bat population has been seriously challenged by a fungal disease called "white nose," so protecting healthy bat colonies has become an environmental priority.
Despite the delays intended to accommodate the bald eagles and bats, not everyone agrees that enough has been done to protect the wildlife. John Gregoire, field ornithologist and co-owner of Kestrel Haven Migration Observatory in Burdett, is one of those unhappy with the site for the wastewater treatment facility. "There were 10 sites proposed, nine of which would be better than the one they came up with," he says. "Queen Catharine Marsh is a critical environmental area, a nationally known brood area for eagles, sandhill cranes, least bittern and other birds. This would normally trigger an indepth environmental study. But instead, the village went right ahead."
Gregoire says he's afraid the day to day operation of the wastewater plant will scare the eagles off forever. He additionally points out the group's purchase of wildlife habitat for DEC protection near Owasco Lake as a sort of environmental trade-off doesn't mitigate the potential damage to Queen Catharine Marsh. "The bottom line is, the plant really needs to go somewhere other than the marsh," he says.
However, the project seems to be going forward on the site already chosen. Planners are involved with administrative details like permitting and receiving and opening bids, which happens this week. Then a construction schedule can be established. "We try to look at [all factors] through the course of a project, try to weigh the environmental considerations and construction sequencing," Duffy says. "It's always a challenge to be sure the project considers potential challenges and impacts."
"It's a good thing there are bats breeding and it's good there are eagles on the lake," Weakland says. He said the wildlife delays will not necessarily delay completion of the project, once all considerations and work-arounds are planned. "There are some challenges but they're not insurmountable."