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Kids study water levels' effects on invasive species at Eel Bay

Construction of the giant hydropower dam near Massena in the 1950s forever tamed the once wild St. Lawrence River. It allowed engineers to harness the river’s natural ebb and flow for energy production and to protect homes and ports at the same time. But in the process, it hurt the indigenous plants and animals that depend on those highs and lows to survive. The environmental group Save The River has been leading a charge to persuade the agency that controls water levels to return more natural ebbs and flows to the St. Lawrence. One way is by giving the younger generation of River residents a hands-on lesson.

It's a windy, overcast fall morning on Wellesley Island. Dozens of kids from Alexandria Central School in Jefferson County bound out of a school bus. Save the River staff hand out shovels, buckets and other tools. 

For the last 50 years, the water levels of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario have been controlled to prevent high highs and low lows. And that's allowed cattails to thrive in wetlands. But all those cattails have crowded out other, native plants and animals. Save the River has invited these seventh graders to learn how to give indigenous species a leg up.

They tromp out toward the bay through narrow paths in the marsh. It's like a corn maze. 

First the kids mark off plots in the marsh, and count the cattails inside them. They record the data. Then the real fun begins.

"Bobby, ready? You gotta help us! Everybody's gotta help on this one. Ready? One, two, three..." The kids grunt as they start yanking up the cattails.

Lee Wilbanks smiles as he watches the cheerful chaos unfold. He's executive director of Save the River. He says the work the kids are doing today will help bring back some native plants – and the animals that depend on them.

"And what we'd hope to see is a return to areas where you have what's called meadow marshes, which are mixtures of vegetation and open water that support the indigenous species like pike, bass, and waterfowl, so that they can breed and live and return to the numbers that they used to be in," Wilbanks says.

With the cattails cleared, Robbie Carr rams a shovel into the dirt. 

"I am digging a hole to find the seed bank. The seed bank is where the seeds lied, where the original seeds lie dormant, from 60, 50 years ago," he explains. 

The hope is with those seeds exposed, the native plants can come to life again.

Matt Regan is a researcher with SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which is co-sponsoring this project. He shows the kids one of the native species they're working to help. 

"Do you guys know what jewel weed is?," he asks. "This is jewel weed right here. You guys see it? It's called jewel weed. It makes a nice little orange flower."

Their work completed, the kids tromp back through the cattails for a picnic lunch. Cheyenne Wray says she likes doing work that helps the environment.

"I think it's actually really good for the meadow marshes to come back. And it's like, a good experience for kids my age. And I also think it's really fun," she says.

Alexandria Hansson says she enjoyed the lesson outside the classroom. 

"I liked the fact that we had to go through all the cattails, like a maze. It was pretty cool," she says. "And knowing that we're helping the environment by doing it, and doing all the research – I thought that was pretty cool."

Save the River will keep the kids apprised of how their plots are doing.

But director Lee Wilbanks says there's a larger agenda for the day. He says no amount of yanking up cattails can make up for the damage done by the water levels regime of the last 50 years. He wants to get the word out that a proposed new plan – called BV7 – would help marshes like Eel Bay return to greater biodiversity.

"Any awareness we can bring to it, whether it's through seventh graders doing something like this and us publicizing it, or working with the villages and towns to go and talk to DEC and to the governor's office, we're just trying to get people to understand that this is a reasonable plan," he says.

A bi-national agency called the International Joint Commission is in charge of the water levels. It prefers the same plan that Save the Rivers wants.

The state of New York seemed prepared to endorse the plan last year, but has backed off after some landowners on the south shore of Lake Ontario raised objections. They're worried that plan would increase erosion and damage their waterfront property.

But Wilbanks says the current plan took into account those property owners – and also recreational boating and commercial shipping – but it left out one critical element.

"They left out the environment. It was 1958, it's understandable. We just didn't have the level of awareness we do now," Wilbanks says.

So Wilbanks hopes the kids will take home that greater environmental awareness, along with the fun of the day's hands-on science lesson.