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Some progress but funding delays for NY coasts

ALBANY, N.Y. - ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — While shellfish restocking, sewage restrictions and new state and federal initiatives promise to help restore coastal waters, some projects are threatened by New York's fiscal crisis.

Acoustic monitoring of endangered right whales off Long Island by Cornell scientists ceased in March when state funding stopped. Stalled projects out of the State University at Stony Brook include an ecosystem model for Long Island's Great South Bay and a new commercial fishery observer program.

"They stopped paying our invoices," said Professor David Conover, director of Stony Brook's Marine Sciences Research Center. At one point those exceeded $1.5 million, he said.

Facing multibillion-dollar deficits, Gov. David Paterson added two additional reviews before spending is approved. State Environmental Protection Fund spending is projected at $180 million this year, the same as last year's peak, Budget Division spokesman Matt Anderson said.

"The funding issue is the money's moving slow," said Joel Barkin, spokesman for the New York Department of State. "We know this. But there's a commitment to fund these programs, and we hope to do it based on the various other priorities in the state as soon as possible."

George Stafford, who heads the Division of Coastal Resources at the Department of State, pointed to progress in demonstration projects in Long Island's Great South Bay and the Sandy Creeks Watershed of Lake Ontario.

"There are some indications that the state may be moving in the right direction," said Sarah Chasis, ocean initiatives director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Obviously, there's a lot to be done."

The council's recent report showed 1,610 beach closing and health advisory days in 2008 for New York's ocean and Great Lakes beaches, up 4 percent. Rain overflowing sewers was the main culprit. Last summer, a large brown tide appeared in Long Island's Great South Bay, though so far this year far there have been fewer algae blooms.

Nationally, there were 5,400 closings or notices last year. They affected 1,210 — or 32 percent — of all monitored beaches, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported. That was about 5 percent of total beach days, both percentages unchanged for the past three years.

Last month, the EPA gave preliminary approval to the state's proposal to stop boats from discharging treated waste in Long Island's South Shore Estuary Reserve. EPA spokeswoman Sophia Kelley said final regulations are likely soon. Boaters between Queens and Southampton will have to go to pump-out stations instead.

"Even though it's treated, it's still sewage effluents," Conover said.

Treated inland sewage also needs to be piped farther out to sea where it's more diluted, which the state has tentatively planned for Jones Beach State Park, Conover said. Pumping it into nearby bays "didn't seem so illogical decades ago, but there's a lot more people here now," he said.

The Obama administration has established an Ocean Policy Task Force to develop an "ecosystem-based approach that addresses conservation, economic activity, user conflict and sustainable use," according to the June 12 presidential memo. A series of hearings has begun.

A week earlier, New York agreed with four other states to jointly address coastal issues including habitats and water quality. In December, New York City released a plan for managing storm water runoff.

In the Great South Bay, between Long Island and Fire Island, the Nature Conservancy has reported success repopulating clam beds on 13,000 underwater acres. The depleted bay once provided half the clams eaten in the U.S. With $1 million from Suffolk County, plus some federal and private funding, the conservancy has stocked more than 3 million adult clams in its no-fishing sanctuaries. The conservancy also is repopulating scallops off its Shelter Island reserve.

Clam survival rates have ranged from 40 percent to 90 percent, depending on location and predators. They began reproducing last year.

"We started to see little tiny baby clams for the first time," said Wayne Grothe, a former bayman heading the project. "We've been putting clams in there for five years. We probably hit critical mass where there were enough clams to spawn all these little clams."

In the Lake Ontario watershed, about 40 miles of stream banks have been restored, most on New York farmland, Stafford said.

This summer has seen fewer fish die-offs from a deadly virus and botulism than the Great Lakes saw in 2007 and 2008, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Sean Mahar, of Audubon New York, said the biggest advance is President Obama's new plan to restore the Great Lakes, requesting $475 million in the 2010 federal budget to clean up contaminated river bottoms, restore wildlife habitat, prevent runoff and erosion and battle invasive species.

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