In a few weeks, when spring settles in, the wetlands around Braddock Bay will come alive.
Spawning fish will take cover under aquatic plants in the shallow water. Birds will flutter among the cattails and float in the ponds, looking for food or a place to nest. For the migrants that made the flight across Lake Ontario, the wetlands will provide a place of respite.
The marshes surrounding the bay and the adjacent Cranberry, Long, Buck, and Round ponds in the Town of Greece are a crucial stopping point along the Atlantic Flyway. Combined, they make up one of the largest wetland areas on the west end of Lake Ontario. (The state Department of Environmental Conservation owns and manages all 2,000-plus acres of the wetland complex, which starts in the northwest corner of Greece and stretches east along the lake for more than five miles.)
Because of its natural beauty, Braddock Bay and the surrounding natural areas are beloved by birders, anglers, boaters, and environmentalists. But the area's coastal wetlands face a couple of serious problems.
Cattails, while an important plant in healthy marshes, have grown to dominate the wetland complex. They've established a monoculture, displacing other desirable, native plants such as marsh grasses, which northern pike use for spawning. Pike are a prize catch for anglers, and they're a key predator that keeps other fish populations in check.
The bay also has an erosion problem. Storm waves eat away approximately an acre per year of shoreline wetlands, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More than half of the bay's remaining coastal wetlands could be gone within 50 years, the agency says.
Wetlands are part of nature's intricate and often fragile balancing act. They filter water, reduce flooding, and provide habitat for countless species. But the wetlands around Braddock Bay and the neighboring coastal ponds seem to be tipping too far in one direction. A couple of projects, one at each end of the complex, could restore some balance among the marshes.
As soon as this week, crews could complete a project to break up cattail congestion on 200 acres at Buck Pond. Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York, the Town of Greece, and the DEC are working together on the project, which started in February.
The Corps of Engineers is also developing a project to protect and enhance the wetlands directly along Braddock Bay. The Corps plans to break up dense patches of cattails, similar to what's happening at Buck Pond. But the project could also include a breakwater at the bay's mouth, which would slow down erosion of its coastal wetlands.
The plan will compete with other Great Lakes environmental projects for federal funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Environmental Protection Agency awards that money.
Coastal wetlands all along Lake Ontario aren't as healthy as they used to be, and the lake's water levels have contributed significantly to their decline. The levels are, to an extent, manipulated by hydropower dams in the St. Lawrence Seaway. And the management plan for those levels was last altered in the 1950's, without any consideration for the wetlands.
"Basically what's happened is the Lake Ontario water levels have stabilized for about 50 years so they don't have the natural high and low periods, which is good for boaters and shoreline owners and things like that, but not good for the marshes," says Mike Wasilco, wildlife manager for DEC Region 8, which includes the Rochester area.
The erosion along Braddock Bay is caused by strong waves crashing against the shore, eating away at it, says Craig Forgette, manager of the Corps of Engineers' Braddock Bay project.
"Two factors need to happen," Forgette says. "You need to have high winds, which cause the high waves. And you also have to have high water."
The problems with the waves go back to 1972, when Hurricane Agnes wiped out a naturally-formed sand barrier. Historically, the barrier beach had weakened powerful waves that came in off of Lake Ontario.
The Corps of Engineers wants to partially replicate the barrier beach, though in function, not appearance. It proposes using a mound of large, irregularly sized stones to build a breakwater at the bay's mouth. The barrier wouldn't end erosion of the coastal wetlands entirely, Forgette says, but it would slow it down substantially.
The agency estimates the costs of the combined barrier and wetland enhancement work at $9 million — a cost that gives some people pause.
But the project does have significant support. June Summers, president of the Genesee Valley Audubon Society, backs it because it'll protect a key section of wetland just south of the bay inlet. That wetland has particularly good biodiversity and, though doing well, could thrive under better circumstances, she says.
Greece Town Supervisor Bill Reilich also supports the project. The counter-erosion function would provide critical protection for Braddock Bay's ecology, he says.
And the project could also have a navigation benefit. Braddock Bay is a federally designated safe harbor, and protecting the bay from bigger waves could make it safer for boats seeking refuge, Reilich says. And some boats aren't able to enter the bay because of accumulated sediment.
"I think that we are to be good stewards of our planet and, quite honestly, this is an area that's not been addressed really since '72," Reilich says. "It's long overdue."
During an appearance at Braddock Bay Marina last week, Senator Chuck Schumer called on the EPA to fully fund the project.
The bay is part of a stressed section of Lake Ontario known as the Rochester Embayment Area of Concern. A committee of local, state, and federal agency representatives oversees environmental and water quality projects in that area, and it supports the Corps of Engineers' plan.
At Buck Pond, which is on the east end of the Braddock Bay complex, crews are digging holes in mats of cattails — some little more than a tangle of roots floating on top of the water.
"Nothing can get down into the water through the cattails, so there's no sunlight underneath and nothing can really crawl through or swim through," says the DEC's Wasilco.
Cattails can be a vital part of wetlands, and many animals rely on them. Muskrat, for example, eat and make their homes out of cattails, says Gregg Sargis, director of ecological management for the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York.
But in the Braddock Bay area, there's too much of a good thing. The cattails are even too dense for the muskrat, he says.
"You want to see a little open water," Sargis says.
Ducks Unlimited, through a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant, has hired crews to dig 6,500 feet of channels and 10 potholes. The organization targeted Buck Pond because the pond has a history of vibrant wildlife use, says Sarah Fleming, regional biologist for New York Ducks Unlimited.
And Buck Pond's connection to Lake Ontario, via a culvert, means it has potential as fish habitat, she says.
After the work is finished, staff from the Nature Conservancy will monitor the channels and potholes to see what impact they have on wildlife. The groups have a baseline to compare future details, since Nature Conservancy staff also recorded the area's conditions in the summer of 2013.
The Corps of Engineers has similar habitat plans for the wetlands on Braddock Bay's coast. It wants to dig approximately seven acres of potholes and 17,800 feet of channels in the marsh. It also plans on removing some invasive species.
The overall Braddock Bay complex doesn't act as one giant wetland system, but as a few different units. Yet similar factors affect the bay, the coastal ponds, and the wetlands around each.
"It really is a complex," Fleming says. "The benefits in one will benefit the others, too."
The Buck Pond and Braddock Bay habitat restoration projects target the same species: muskrat, northern pike, and black tern. All are indicator species, meaning that their presence or absence speaks to the health of the wetlands.
The Corps of Engineers is focusing on the black tern in particular. The bird hasn't been spotted nesting in the bay's wetlands since the late 1990's, Forgette says. But if the wetlands can be restored to a state that's attractive to the birds, he says, it'll be attractive to other important fish and animal species, too.
Coastal wetlands need seasonal and yearly variation in water levels to stay healthy. The periodic rise and fall helps ensure a diversity of plants, which in turn makes for more attractive habitat.
For more than a decade, a body known as the International Joint Commission has been developing plans to change the regulation of Lake Ontario's water levels.
The current proposal, dubbed Plan 2014, would allow the water levels to follow natural seasonal changes, similar to the rhythms that existed prior to the 1950's. The IJC and its supporters say the variability would help repair the damage done to coastal wetlands by decades of stable water levels. (It also takes into account climate change's current and predicted impact on lake levels.)
"If you look at aerial photos and maps of wetlands on Lake Ontario prior to regulation of the water levels, you can really see it, they were open," says Jim Howe, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York. "There were tons of open areas. Now they're just covered with cattails."
Advocates for Plan 2014 say that allowing greater variation in water levels may also help build up beaches and coastlines.
But prior lake level proposals have been beaten back by lakeshore property owners and their elected representatives. They say that the plan doesn't offer enough protection against shoreline erosion and that it makes properties more susceptible to flooding.
The advocates and critics have presented their cases and supporting evidence to the IJC. The commission is reviewing its current proposal and the comments it's received on the plan. Given the fate of previous water level regulation proposals, it's likely the new plan will be revised and re-released.
But environmentalists stick to their argument that, until some variability is restored to the lake's levels, wetlands will suffer. A new approach to regulating the levels, along with ongoing restoration work, could restore the Braddock Bay area wetlands to outstanding ecosystems, Summers says.
"Nothing is simple," Summers says. "It is a complex system."