Genesee River Basin Summit

Genesee River Basin Summit

iFebruary 11, 2014

The first annual Genesee River Basin Summit was held on the shore of Lake Ontario last week at the mouth of the Genesee River.  Genesee Valley Conservancy attended the summit along with representatives from other land trusts, Cornell Cooperative Extension, county, State, and Federal agencies, universities, and other organizations working in or around the Genesee River.

The summit was arranged by the Center for Environmental Initiatives to present the conclusions of a three year long research study by Dr. Joseph Makarewicz of The College at Brockport State University of New York.  His interest was to determine the water quality of the Genesee River and the sources of any water-quality concerns.  His study also looked at management changes that could be used to improve the River.

The study fills some 750 pages addressing the River’s entire length from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario.  Two main issues identified within the Genesee River are the quantities of phosphorus and sediment.  Both are naturally occurring, but both are present in elevated levels as a result of human causes.

As the River continues to carve its way through Western New York, sediment is carried downstream.  However, the amount of sediment flowing in the River is increased by non-vegetated steep slopes and river banks along portions of the River that result in more significant than normal erosion.  The study identifies several land management techniques, such as planting vegetative buffers in problem areas, that could help reduce the excess sediment flowing down the Genesee River.  The challenge comes when trying to implement these land management changes.  The shear length of the river and its tributaries and large number of landowners will require a long-term and sustained approach to reducing excess erosion.

Phosphorus, the other major concern identified in the study, when at excessive levels can cause algae blooms that deplete the supply of oxygen in rivers and lakes and eliminate aquatic habitat.  These blooms are the cause behind regular beach closings on the shores of Lake Ontario due to the large amounts of phosphorus flowing into the lake from the Genesee River.  Roughly 40% of the phosphorus level is naturally occurring, while the other 60% comes from a variety of sources.  One of the sources of phosphorous is wastewater treatment plants.  In the study, there was a clear change in the phosphorous levels and vegetation and aquatic life above and below wastewater treatment facilities discharge location.  The Department of Environmental Conservation is looking into managing these facilities for phosphorous levels in the future.  The other main source, harder to pinpoint, are agricultural operations.  These non-point sources of phosphorous are much harder to study because each farm may or may not have erosion issues, be applying chemicals at appropriate times or at the recommended levels.  Further work will need to be done to determine how agricultural players can help reduce their phosphorous inputs into the River.

In addition to presenting the research of Dr. Makarewicz, the summit was the first annual meeting of government agencies and private organizations to facilitate long-term collaborations and efforts to address water quality issues within the Genesee River.  The meeting provided a unique opportunity for Genesee Valley Conservancy to meet with state and federal agencies in a context separate from any particular project and determine long-term strategies to improve the quality of the Genesee River.

The Genesee Valley Conservancy protects eleven miles of land along the river from development, but there is still an opportunity to ensure those protected properties are managed appropriately to keep impacts of land management on the River to a minimum.  The Genesee River is a unique and important resource in New York State.