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The Nature Conservancy in New York Testifies at Water Quality Hearing in New York City

Testimony of The Nature Conservancy in New York Before the Assembly Standing Committee on Health, the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation, and the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Department of Environmental Conservation

Albany, NY

Good morning Assemblymembers Englebright, Fahy and Gottfried. My name is Amanda Lefton and I am the deputy policy director for The Nature Conservancy in New York. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today and for your continued focus on protecting New York’s natural resources and the communities that depend on them. Your leadership in securing unprecedented investments in restoring and protecting water quality is to be commended. In particular, The Nature Conservancy is grateful for your work to secure $110 million for source water protection, $75 million for septic system rebates, funding for water and wastewater infrastructure, and incentives for shared municipal services. As critical, we are also deeply appreciative of the historic $300 million investment in the Environmental Protection Fund, which conserves watersheds, supports water quality projects, and enhances our estuaries and Great Lakes.

The Nature Conservancy in New York
The Nature Conservancy in New York is the state program of the world’s largest conservation organization. Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. We work in all 50 United States as well as in over 30 countries to protect nature for the benefit of people today and future generations. We have a collaborative, science-based approach to environmental problem-solving. We are engaged in hands-on research, we are land stewards for the 160 preserves we own in New York, and we work with governments, community groups, industry, and other stakeholders to secure a more sustainable future.

Fiscal Year 2018-2019
We are keenly aware of the challenges presented by the State’s current fiscal outlook. Estimates of a $4 billion deficit coupled with potential reforms at the federal level, expected to further impact New York, paint a gloomy picture for the upcoming legislative session. As you begin to wrestle with the state’s fiscal outlook, first and foremost we urge you not to make a false choice between protecting our critical natural resources and balancing the Fiscal Year 2018-2019 budget. The continuation of appropriations for the five year $2.5 billion investment in water quality programs and the $300 million Environmental Protection Fund is imperative. In addition to the appropriations, the timely and full disbursement of the funding from these programs is critically important. The resources that these programs aim to protect are the lifeblood of New York, providing clean and plentiful water for our communities; creating and sustaining jobs in sectors such as construction, engineering, fishing, and tourism; and allowing public recreation and connection with nature. We cannot afford to backslide on this important investment, particularly now as we face a climate of uncertainty around clean water policy and environmental funding at the federal level. Now is the time that New York needs to lead on progressive environmental policy and funding. Thank you for your commitment and leadership to securing the continuation of these vital programs.

Nutrient Loading
Because New York is such a diverse state, our water challenges vary by region. However, we have seen some common threats throughout the state, including nutrient pollution. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, come from sources including but not limited to the discharge of wastewater from on-site septic and municipal sewage systems, runoff from agricultural operations and residential lawns, and atmospheric deposition. When this pollution gets into our groundwater, streams, rivers, lakes and bays, it lowers the amount of oxygen available to plants and animals and causes algae to grow. These conditions lead to some of the massive fish kills and toxic algae blooms we have seen around the state, and can threaten not only the environment, but human health. From Montauk, all the way up to the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie, we are seeing the impact of nutrients in our waterways, and realizing that we must improve water quality to preserve our economy, public health and quality of life. On Long Island in particular, nitrogen pollution from septic systems and cesspools has resulted in serious public health risks and environmental degradation. The new septic system program approved in the fiscal year 2017-2018 budget will provide $75 million over five years to begin to address the hundreds of thousands of traditional on-site waste disposal systems in Suffolk County alone.

Recent research indicates that past land use practices that have contributed to nutrient loading have resulted in legacy issues that are substantial and will take long term management strategies to address. Lag times between implementation of best management practices or ending of significant nutrient inputs and quantifiable water quality changes are significant. A study in the Lake Erie watershed had a mean annual lag time of 24.5 years (Van Meter et al. 2017). The United States Geological Survey has indicated similar legacy issues on Long Island and we believe we can expect this across New York. This is not to say that New York’s investment in restoration will not result immediate gains in many areas, rather that this a marathon not a sprint, and that a single, one-time investment will not address this problem. In fact, recent investments will be wasted if continued funding is not maintained.

The Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan considers these very issues. Through funding secured by the Legislature, the Department of Environmental Conservation, Suffolk and Nassau Counties, the Long Island Regional Planning Council are continuing the development of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP), which will set science based nitrogen load targets for ecosystem recovery. This is work will set a critical path for water quality restoration on Long Island. The Legislature should support the continuation of this important work to ensure the success of this foundational plan, as well as the septic system rebate program, which will be paramount to the implementation of this plan.

Water Quality is a Community Resilience Challenge
Improved water quality through a reduction in nutrient loading from septic systems and cesspools is essential to reduce risk to communities from flooding and extreme weather events. Water quality is directly linked to water supply security and sustainability, especially in areas where groundwater is the sole source of drinking water. Nitrogen from on-site waste disposal systems is severely degrading our coastal ecosystems, including our marshes and seagrass, that act as natural infrastructure to protect coastal communities from storms and flooding. Five years after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of New York, we need to refocus on how to be better prepared for the next storm or flooding event. Paramount to that is the protection of our natural resources, which often act as our first line of defense. As the Legislature continues its necessary focus on clean water, consider investments in areas where wastewater improvements have both water quality and resilience benefits. On Long Island, some septic systems are already in ground water, below sea level and homeowners are not able to flush their toilets during high tide. Focused investments in areas where rising sea level and the associated rise of the water table are flooding our septic systems and cesspools with increased frequency - leaching systems are close to or indirect contact with ground and surface waters – would result in immediate and measurable improvements.

Conserve and Restore Natural Resources that Protect Water Quality
Through the historic $110 million source water protection program and the $300 million Environmental Protection Fund, New York has recommitted to protecting the natural resources that we depend on. Our rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, riparian areas and floodplains, and forests play a critical role in providing clean water for communities throughout New York. The Nature Conservancy strongly supports efforts to protect water at its source and commends the Assembly for its leadership in securing funding for the creation of a new land acquisition program for this purpose. Thank you for your continued commitment to proactively protecting water resources through this program.

Additionally, in order to ensure our wetlands are well protected and playing the important role of cleaning our water, we need to know where they are. It’s hard to believe, but the State is still relying on out of date wetland maps to implement the state’s wetlands regulations. Because new maps can be controversial, their release is often delayed. As a result, important decisions continue to be based on dated and inaccurate information. We need to update our wetland maps more frequently and ensure we are using the best available information. Not only do wetlands play an important role in protecting water quality, they also help reduce risk from flooding in our communities. These are vital natural assets that need greater level of protection. In addition to ensuring maps are updated and released in a timelier manner, the Legislature should address regulatory gaps that leave wetlands unprotected.

Local Governments Role
In addition to the state’s investments, we need to provide communities with the tools necessary to protect their water. The $2.5 billion investment made by the state is significant and historic, but it simply is not enough to fix the all of the water infrastructure challenges across the state. The Legislature should explore options to create the enabling authority for communities to levy local fees to invest in water quality projects and upgrade waste water infrastructure. We appreciate Assemblymember Fahy’s efforts to establish a Community Preservation Fund for the Town of Bethlehem, which could be a tool to protect water. We look forward to working with you again on that important proposal. On Long Island, public opinion research has shown us time and time again that voters see water quality degradation as a major threat and are willing to help fund a solution. In November 2016, the five east end towns of Long Island voted to renew the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund for another 20 years and allocate 20 percent of that program’s funding to water quality improvement projects. We know that our water resources play a critical role in our local economies and in our environmental and public health. It’s time that the State give the same opportunity to other communities across New York state to invest in their resources to protect them for future generations. The Legislature should grant authority similar that of the Community Preservation Fund to localities statewide. Additionally, the tax cap has been a significant restraint for local governments to take action. The Nature Conservancy encourages exempting water infrastructure improvements – both capital spending and debt service – by municipalities from the state tax cap.

Agency Staffing
The DEC has worked diligently to address the many challenges posed by water quality and scarcity in New York. However, it is difficult to ignore that DEC is an agency rich in authority and directives, yet starved for the appropriate staff and resources to fulfill them. We urge increasing staff levels at our agencies charged with protecting our states finite natural resources to ensure that we can meet the needs of our communities and continue our legacy of leadership in environmental protection.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment today. The Nature Conservancy appreciates your attention to the water quality challenges emerging across New York and stands ready to partner with you to protect our vital water resources. Please let me know if I can provide any additional information.

Amanda Lefton
Deputy Policy Director
The Nature Conservancy in New York
alefton@tnc.org
(518) 690 7862

 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.