Regional Watershed Planning: Necessary for Conservation

By Joanna Panasiewicz, Erie County Department of Environment and Planning
New York State is blessed with so many wonderful natural spaces and waterways to protect for our drinking water, recreation, commercial uses, and water storage/filtering capacity. This highlights the importance of regional water quality organizations working together on upstream/downstream issues that can impact entire regions. Gone are the days when municipalities can operate in individual silos regarding these vast environmental concerns. The Lake Erie Watershed Protection Alliance (LEWPA) has taken this “watershed approach” to addressing water quality and quantity problems in the Lake Erie and Niagara River watershed. The idea for LEWPA grew out of a meeting of local and regional elected officials who wanted to be proactive after massive flooding in 2009 caused damage to road, water, and wasewater infrastructure and created excessive sediment and ebris to enter waterways. This potentially increased nutrient and bacteria loading to Lake Erie. LEWPA utilized the model of the Finger Lakes-Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance and was officially formed in 2012 as an alliance of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, and Erie counties with the mission to foster collaboration and partnerships within the watershed to address regional water quality and quantity concerns and in doing so, protect and enhance our Lake Erie resource.

Through an Intermunicipal Agreement amongst the three counties, the nine-member Board directs LEWPA's actions and determines priorities for the watershed with guidance from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). Board members include a Soil and Water Conservation district member, a regional government representative, and a local government representative from each county. Meetings are open to the public and are attended by water quality stakeholders and representatives from non-profits to ensure water quality issues from soil erosion, urban stormwater runoff, agricultural practices, and development trends at all levels are taken into consideration. In addition, LEWPA interfaces with Canada and other Great Lakes states through the Lake Erie & St. Clair Binational Forum. Most recently, LEWPA has opened discussions with the Seneca Nation of Indians whose lands are within the watershed.

LEWPA began with the task of uniting municipalities in the watershed under the common goal of protecting water resources. With the assistance of the Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board through 604(b) Clean Water Act funds from NYSDEC, LEWPA was able to hire a coordinator and survey the over 80 municipalities throughout the watershed to determine their greatest water quality challenges. LEWPA has successfully planted trees and shrubs along waterways in all three counties in an effort to restore riparian buffers and reduce stream bank erosion.

Now, with a grant from the New York State Department of State with funds provided under Title 11 of the Environmental Protection Fund, LEWPA is working on expanding the Niagara River Watershed Management Plan to include the Lake Erie watershed territory. The Regional Niagara River Lake Erie Watershed Management Plan – Phase 2 project will result in a Watershed Atlas which will include:

 Existing water quality reports, county-wide plans, research within the watershed, and additional resources relating to water quality in the project area.

 Maps characterizing the area including wetlands, parks, aquifers, soil types, aswell as stream classifications by state and federal agencies, dam locations, etc.

 Maps of potential pollution sources such as gas wells, highways crossings over waterways, remediation sites, permitted discharges, etc.

This Watershed Atlas will be available online to stakeholders, municipalities, and the public. In addition, a Watershed Characterization Report will describe the watershed utilizing the resources collected above. It is one of the first steps to creating a USEPAapproved Nine Minimum Element Watershed Management Plan (9E Plan) needed for some federal funding opportunities. Additionally, five municipalities within the watershed area will receive an in-depth look at their laws, codes, and regulations as they pertain to water quality. They will receive recommendations on ways to improve
water quality through this Local Law Assessment. Finally, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, a non-profit dedicated to protecting water quality, is working on Phase 2 of the Niagara River Watershed Management Plan and is developing project implementation plans for five of the subwatersheds. These plans will help focus financial resources to the water quality projects that will have the most impact. These Watershed Implementation Plans will also contribute toward an approved 9E Plan.

Next steps for LEWPA include receiving funding through the New York State Environmental Protection Fund in order to provide necessary water quality monitoring, technical assistance to projects needing design or engineering studies, and implementation funds for demonstration projects. The goal is to be able to track the water quality improvements over time and provide the seed money for projects to go after larger grant resources for implementation. Having Phase 2 of the Regional Niagara River Lake Erie Watershed Management Plan completed will provide a framework for
decision making in the region that takes into account ways to conserve our natural assets and to improve our natural resources for the protection of water quality.

Making sure that municipalities work together on this common goal to identify water quality issues and address them on a regional basis is critical to ensuring a comprehensive conservation program that respects the need for continued economic development in a sustainable manner. For more information, visit