Watershed conference reflects on progress

Rafters swim in the calm waters of the Black River in July 2016 in Brownville. After being canceled this spring due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Black River Watershed Conference is underway virtually this month. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — For more than a decade, dozens of agencies and millions of dollars in state funding have supported the Black River Watershed Initiative, and stakeholders continue to push for environmental remediation in the mostly-forested north country drainage basin.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation kicked off the annual Black River Watershed Conference last week with a 10-year progress report. Typically held in-person in June, the conference was postponed this summer as a COVID-19 precaution and continues virtually through the end of October.

Emily Sheridan, DEC’s Eastern Great Lakes Watershed coordinator, described the development of the progress report as an essential reflection on years of agency collaboration and plan implementation. Ms. Sheridan, an avid high peaks hiker, said the success of the initiative hinges on smaller projects being completed incrementally until a summit is reached.

“I love to be able to reach these summits and look over the landscape and think about everything that’s going on in these watersheds as I’m looking across,” she said. “The goals of the Black River Initiative, to me, are kind of like summits that we can reach together.”

With funding from the state Environmental Protection Fund and led by the DEC, the Tug Hill Commission, and organizations and municipalities across five counties, the initiative is based on goals outlined in four documents: the 2010 Black River Watershed Management Plan, the 2016 Black River Nine Element Plan, the 2007 Black River Blueway Trail Plan and the 2012 Black River Trail Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan.

Using ecosystem-based management principles, which consider a systemic balancing of the needs of people, nature and the economy, initiative partners have set goals to conserve natural resources, promote resilient communities, identify and address pollution sources, reduce agricultural and stormwater runoff, strengthen waterway buffers and improve access to recreation areas.

Major Black River Watershed threats, Ms. Sheridan said, include wastewater and septic system discharge, severe storms, climate change, invasive species, decades-old contaminants and agricultural runoff.

“We are fortunate that in the Black River Watershed, many of the threats are well understood, and partners are actively managing them to sustain land and water uses,” Ms. Sheridan said.

As part of the 2010 New York Department of State-supported management plan alone, 72 actions, including one-time projects and ongoing programs, have been completed since 2010 or are underway, totaling $35,812,470.

A total of 29 projects and $3,646,290 have been implemented through the Black River Nine Element Plan, which is based on a federal Environmental Protection Agency nine-part framework for watershed planning.

With headwaters in the western Adirondacks, the Black River Watershed drains northwest to Lake Ontario, covers 1,920 square miles in Jefferson, Lewis, Herkimer, Hamilton and Oneida counties and contains 3,910 miles of freshwater rivers and streams, according to the DEC.

The watershed is dotted by nearly 200 significant lakes, ponds and reservoirs, including Stillwater Reservoir, Fulton Chain of Lakes and Big Moose Lake.

The Black River Watershed Conference schedule is available online and continues this month with presentations on the state of Hamilton County Lakes, the invasive Japanese knotweed, the history and geology of the Black River Watershed and Black River dam re-licencing. Information about accessing the live webinars and previous webinars is posted to the commission’s website, tughill.org.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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