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Enviros Criticize NY Gov's Veto Of A Bill To Further Protect Streams

Lucas Willard

Environmentalists are speaking out about a bill New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently vetoed. They say the legislation would have protected thousands of miles of headwater streams and creeks.

Governor Cuomo vetoed legislation that would have extended the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Protection of Waters Program to class C streams. The bill was meant to provide oversight to projects that may disturb stream banks or beds. Rob Hayes is clean water associate at Environmental Advocates NY.

“The governor’s veto was a huge missed opportunity to protect clean drinking water in New York and our natural resources,” Hayes says. “This bill would have added protections to 40,000 miles of New York streams, streams that directly support clean drinking water.”

Hayes says these streams offer buffers to flooding and aid in filtering pollutants. A DEC spokesperson says the agency takes seriously its responsibility to protect the water resources of the state and works directly with the state Department of Health to assist municipalities to ensure the protection of drinking water, including tributaries and streams to critical water supplies. The statement adds that any time there are threats to a community water supply, DEC and DOH work quickly with the local water supplier to take immediate actions to protect water quality.

Riverkeeper Legislative Advocacy Manager Jeremy Cherson says without the oversight, the many class C streams that feed into drinking water sources and merit protection are vulnerable and put the entire stream at risk. He says an example of a stream that the bill would have covered is in Peekskill.

“The City of Peekskill gets its drinking water from a creek called Peekskill Hollow Brook and, although Peekskill Hollow Brook is, the main stem is classified as an A stream, meaning it’s a best use for drinking water, many, many of its tributaries are not listed as class A and are class C streams, and they do not receive the same protection as the main branch,” Cherson says.

Under current regulations, full state protections are in place for class AA, A and B streams and a small subset of class C streams that support trout populations or trout spawning. These streams are protected from certain activities and require a permit for many others such as stream bank or bed disturbance. Class "C" waterways are often used for boating, fishing and other activities, and are not currently afforded the protection given to the other classified streams. Democratic Hudson Valley Senator Pete Harckham sponsored the bill in the Senate, filling a hole after President Trump rolled back protections for streams and wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act. Following the governor’s veto, Harckham plans to discuss the path forward with advocates. Environmental Advocates’ Hayes has another example of a stream deserving of protection.

“So this issue directly relates to Newburgh’s drinking water contamination of PFOS,” says Hayes. “Some of the streams that fed into or contributed to the water in Washington Lake near Newburgh would have  been considered class C streams and would have received additional protections had this bill been signed.”

Governor Cuomo, in his veto message, calls the bill well-intentioned but with a tremendous fiscal impact. Environmentalists say they understand that COVID-19 has decimated state finances, but argue that skipping pollution prevention now could end up much costlier later.

“We were very disappointed that the governor did not recognize that it is far cheaper for the state to protect these streams before they are polluted,” Hayes says. “It is much more costly to pay for remediation and restoration once the damage is done. “So we certainly disagree with the governor that cost should have been an issue in vetoing this bill.

Riverkeeper’s Cherson agrees, and addresses another aspect of the veto message that says class C streams are best used for fishing.

“And he notes this in his veto message but, what he doesn’t note is that in the state’s law, the stream’s water quality also must be suitable for primary- and secondary-contact recreation,” Cherson says. “And so while they’re best usage is considered for fishing, we should maintain them in a way that it is safe to swim in them as well.”

Cuomo’s veto message also says that class C Streams benefit from oversight by the State's Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Hayes says added protections are still needed. Buffalo Democrat Sean Ryan sponsored the bill in the Assembly.

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