A state senator from the Hudson Valley has introduced a bill that would give New York greater authority to identify and protect wetland areas. He says the legislation is crucial given the apparently reduced role of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and potential evisceration of some of the nation’s water protection rules.
Democratic Senator George Latimer says his bill would allow the state Department of Environmental Conservation to protect freshwater wetlands as small as one acre, including smaller wetlands that are adjacent to water bodies, or those that are deemed to be of “significant local importance”. Current law provides state wetlands protections for those 12.4 acres and larger and those found to be of “unusual local importance” by the DEC commissioner. Here’s Latimer.
“While I filed the bill before seeing some of the direction from the coming policies of the new EPA under Scott Pruitt, I think it’s pretty obvious that the federal government intends to get out of the business of protecting our environment,” says Latimer. “So I think New York state has to step up to the plate, has to put some regulations in place. Wetlands, as we know, are the natural filtration system for our groundwater, and water that goes into the Hudson River, water that goes into the Long Island Sound, if polluted will pollute those bodies of water.”
The White House budget includes a 31 percent funding cut to the EPA. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper.
“Protecting wetlands is vitally important to protecting water quality and mitigating floods and a number of other important goals that we have,” Shapley says. “And we particularly like to see a focus in areas that are used for drinking water.”
Latimer’s 37th District includes communities along the Long Island Sound in Westchester County.
“I see in an everyday context, in communities like Rye, Mamaroneck, and Larchmont, New Rochelle and Port Chester the pressures that there are to develop on the waterfront. Waterfront property is desirable. People want to build homes or condos, a combination of retail and a variety of different developments,” Latimer says. “And those developments have to be environmentally sensitive because Long Island Sound and, for that matter, the Hudson River are bodies of water that really belong to all of us.”
He does expect opposition to the bill.
“I assume that there’ll be some development opposition to this. It will face an uncertain future in a climate where people are thinking more about the dollar-and-cents cost of everything and not always the value of certain things,” says Latimer. “I think we’ll be able to make a strong argument that the overall impact of this is a positive impact in terms of economic development but, in the narrow sense, there are individuals that would like to develop right on the waterfront and they might find this a problem for them.”
The bill also would update the state’s Wetlands Maps, most of which are more than 20 years old. Latimer says the maps do not reflect how development has affected New York’s wetlands. Latimer says the bill would look out for the Hudson River, Long Island Sound and water bodies all over the state.
“This includes the Great Lakes and Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It includes the Finger Lakes. It includes Lake Otesaga and places in the upper Hudson Valley that lead into the Adirondacks which, in every one of these cases, are pristine environments. It’s part of our economic development. It’s part of our tourism. It’s part of the growth of industries like the wine industry, which has to have access to the valleys around the Finger Lakes,” Latimer says. “So environmental protection is not just soft-heartedness; it’s hard-headed intelligent economic development. And so I think if we protect against the wrong kind of development then we’ll maintain these bodies of water for the right type of growth and the right type of usage.”
Long Island Democrat Steve Engelbright sponsors the bill in the Assembly, where he chairs the Committee on Environmental Conservation. A DEC spokesman says the agency typically does not comment on pending legislation.