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SUNY-ESF adjunct professor awarded state department funding to monitor wetlands

Timothy Howard, adjunct professor at SUNY-ESF, will monitor the coasts of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

Originally published by The Daily Orange
By Kyle Smith, February, 2017

A faculty member at SUNY-ESF was recently awarded more than $100,000 by the U.S. Department of State to conduct monitoring of the lower St. Lawrence River wetlands and Lake Ontario.

Timothy Howard, adjunct professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, will be studying the impacts of the passage of a landmark water regulation plan called Plan 2014. The plan was passed by the International Joint Commission, a United States-Canadian venture tasked with regulating shared water uses between the two countries, in December 2016.

The new set of regulations was created in response to the deterioration of approximately 63,000 acres of wetland in the St. Lawrence River valley, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. Experts say the wetlands are increasingly threatened by both invasive species, as well as the effects of climate change. The plan calls for more variability in water levels at both Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Plan 2014 was adopted after nearly $20 million was spent on studies of the plan, according to Syracuse.com.

Howard is now leading the effort to gauge the impacts Plan 2014 could have on wetland ecosystem health. Wetlands serve critical ecosystem functions, he said.

Howard said his monitoring of the plan’s impacts will be conducted using a series of photographs taken from an airplane, mapping and measuring the size of different vegetation types at 16 randomly selected sampling sites. In addition, Howard said his team will also be conducting field sampling to understand different vegetation types at varying elevations.

“The plants and animals that depend on these wetlands are also a resource for hunting and fishing, and wildlife and natural resources,” Howard said. “A plan that would improve the wetlands is a benefit for the natural resources and the natural resources’ community.”

Frank Bevacqua, a spokesman for the United States section of the International Joint Commission, said Plan 2014 will help the commission prepare for the future.

“The new plan and the adaptive management approach will help us prepare for the future,” Bevacqua said.

Homeowners of lake and river front properties in the region, however, have vehemently opposed Plan 2014’s measures. They claimed that the measures bring down property value in the area.

In response, Doug Wilcox, a professor of wetland ecology at SUNY Brockport and a SUNY-ESF and Syracuse University alumnus, said creating erosion outweighs the need for restoring Lake Ontario’s coastal ecosystems.

Several environmentalist and sportsmen’s groups, such as Nature Conservancy, New York Audubon, the New York State Conservation Council and Ducks Unlimited — have endorsed Plan 2014, according to Syracuse.com.

The change in regulation plans did not come easily, as decades of research was needed to establish and convince officials that the old regulations were devastating Lake Ontario’s ecosystem health, Wilcox said.

Pioneering this research was Wilcox himself, Howard said, adding that Wilcox worked for almost two decades to bring the International Joint Commission’s attention to the wetlands issue.

“There needs to be monitoring programming to determine what the changes in the wetland vegetation will be under the new regulation plan,” Wilcox said, noting that cattail invasions — a key indicator of unhealthy wetlands — are primarily the result of artificial stabilizing of lakes and rivers.