Sunday, June 20, 2010

Town Board Ignores Expert's Advice to Protect Aquifer

Despite recommendations to designate the local aquifer as a Critical Environmental Area (CEA), the Candor Town Board nixed the idea - and it wasn't even on the agenda. Earlier this month Steven Winkley, a source water protection specialist from the New York Rural Water Association, urged the town to designate the aquifer as a CEA. The aquifer provides the sole source of water for every resident - and business - in town.

And Winkley isn't the only one; his suggestion comes on the heels of similar recommendations  from the County Department of Health as well as Tioga County Investigates Natural Gas (TING).

Judging from comment made at the June 8 town board meeting, the local municipal officials are woefully uninformed about what CEA designation means for both the aquifer and the town. "Designation as a CEA would burden us from proceeding with gas drilling," said one board member. It won't.  Town supervisor Darlene Cobler agreed, mumbling that there would be no CEA designation if such designation meant that the majority of the acreage in town would be off limits to drilling. It doesn't.

What CEA designation does

Local, county and state agencies use the Critical Environmental Area (CEA) designation to protect their natural resources. By identifying the most – and least – suitable locations for business and development infrastructure, CEA designation helps town planning boards facilitate effective land-use policies. 

To designate a local wetland, town park or village cemetery as a CEA, an agency must show that the area has an exceptional or unique character with respect to one or more criteria: Does it provide a benefit (or threat) to human health? Is the area a natural setting that provides wildlife habitat, forest and vegetation, or open space with important aesthetic or scenic qualities? Is the area unique for its agricultural, social, cultural, historic, archaeological, recreational, or educational values? Or are there any inherent ecological, geological or hydrological characteristics that may be adversely affected by any change?

What CEA designation does not do

The crucial thing to remember, says Bob Ewing of NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is that CEA designation does not prohibit development. While it does play a crucial role in allowing communities to retain control over their most valued resources, CEAs do not offer the legal protection provided by land use controls such as zoning. They simply encourage more thorough examination of proposed development projects.

Designating an aquifer as a CEA means that when development is considered, the agencies filling out the environmental reviews have to give more specific responses to the questions on the SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review). But designation as a CEA does not trigger a SEQR where one would not normally be required. While CEA designation heightens the awareness of that resource during an environmental review, it does not add more regulation. 

The impact of CEA on drilling and other activities 

Even if a town goes through the CEA designation process, that action does not grant the town any permitting authority, zoning restrictions or other jurisdictions that do not already exist. So why should Candor designate the Catatonk Creek Aquifer CEA status?

“The chief reason,” says Winkley, “is to raise awareness about the importance and sensitivity of the aquifer that serves the majority of the population in Candor.”What does that mean for those concerned about how CEA designation might impact drilling? Not much, Winkley says. “Since most drilling will be covered under the state's Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) and the Supplemental GEIS (currently under review), designation as a CEA would not directly come into play as long as the drillers follow the SGEIS.”

Other towns, including Virgil and Homer, have designated their sole-source aquifers as CEAs (you can read Virgil's here). They have also written zoning ordinances that prohibit industrialized and polluting activities from locating over the aquifer.

So why not Candor? Do the town board members not understand what CEA designation really means? Or are they afraid that an election-year move to protect the town's only water source will send the wrong message to constituents hoping to cash in on the Marcellus gas rush?


  1. If towns in Cortland county recognize the importance of a CEA designation, you would think the towns in Tioga would do the same. The aquifer here runs through both Tioga and Broome counties. If the towns don't want to push a CEA designation, then we should push the county legislature to do this.

  2. The Virgil,NY Aquifer Protection Law is available at:
    The town attorney responsible is Patrick Snyder in Cortland.

  3. Thanks Cortland Buzz - I added the link above so folks can read it as they go along.

  4. I wonder if people just don't read the language of the CEA designation, and just go with the fear that the gas drilling industry will leave the area and take with it the dreams of lots of money. Of course, the industry would also take with it their polluting, destructive effects on the environment and the health of human beings. Even that doesn't always seem to offset the lure of money, does it. Of course, this assumes the industry would leave, which it wouldn't. The mindsets of people are fascinating and alarming.