Winds Of Change Coming?By Ryck Lydecker
Published: April/May 2011
As marine planning and zoning moves from concept to reality on the Great Lakes, the need for boaters and other key stakeholders to get involved accelerates.
The port of Duluth, Minnesota, at the head of Lake Superior, set a record last year. Over 2,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, via the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, it received 11 shiploads of European-made wind-turbine components. The towers, blades, hubs, and turbine enclosures ultimately would be put to work generating electricity at "wind farms" across the U.S. Great Plains and Canada's prairie provinces. Yet the very lakes these ships wound through to land their cargos of "clean, green" equipment in the heart of North America have at least as much wind energy potential as the plains and possibly more, according to the U.S. Dept of Energy. Dependable winds over the five Great Lakes could generate electricity much closer to power-hungry U.S. and Canadian cities. As a result, wind-energy developers and public utilities have at least a half dozen proposals on the drawing boards to build offshore wind farms in Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, as well as in the St. Lawrence River.
But all is not calm on the Great Lakes wind-energy front and one project in particular is generating stiff opposition. The New York Power Authority solicited proposals from wind-energy developers to produce from 120 to 500 megawatts of electricity from winds over Lakes Erie and Ontario, enough to supply from 35,000 to 150,000 average homes. But some boaters fear that the turbines, potentially 166 of them, will restrict navigation and create other problems.
"My point, as a sailor, is that we are going to lose access to the water that surrounds the windmills," says Youngstown, New York boater Richard Roach. The authority's Great Lakes Offshore Wind (GLOW) project identified an area 2.5 nautical miles off Youngstown as one of several potential sites for Lake Ontario. It identified additional sites off the state's Lake Erie shoreline beyond a 2.5 nautical mile buffer zone for consideration as well. "Consider 120 windmills 420 feet tall with a safety zone around each one of a half-mile radius," Roach says, citing a security zone figure given to him by the Coast Guard. "These windmills would have a hugely detrimental impact on recreational boating activities in these lakes at a great cost to taxpayers. It may cause the end of a 37-year tradition of the Youngstown Level Regatta." As the Youngstown Yacht Club's premier annual event, it typically draws 300 to 350 boats and their crews, notes Roach, who is on the board of directors.
"The village has spent considerable money to enhance the village park and docking area to attract boaters," he adds. "If the windmills were to go where they are planned our cruising and racing programs would be negatively affected and area boating would most likely end for many."
For it's part the New York Power Authority says that project developers who win the contracts, in consultation with the U.S. Coast Guard and other public agencies, plus stakeholders, would have to establish guidelines regarding zones around the turbines that could be made off-limits to boaters and anglers. A March 2007 guidance document from the Commandant gives Coast Guard sector commanders authority to set boundaries around any offshore wind installations in U.S. waters but mandates consultation with the maritime community and stakeholders, specifically naming recreational boaters to be consulted.
According to Connie Cullen, a spokesperson for the New York Power Authority, that part of the planning is critical, and comes later. "Because we've identified a potential spot does not mean a wind farm is going to go there," Cullen notes. "This will be a very public process with lots of opportunities for comments and once the proposals are made public, the developers will do the detailed studies required."
Cullen said the bids would be made public by the second quarter of this year, and added that the authority plans to go beyond specific legal requirements for public comment to engage stakeholders in project details. But isn't all of that too late, once a specific project is accepted for consideration?
"Not at all," she replies. "We've told these communities, that when we announce potential developers for the projects that there's still at least two years of research and evaluation that will include ample opportunity for public comment." So how will wind farms affect recreational boating? "When there's a potential project, then boaters can tell us, 'Oh, that's no good there.' Or, 'If you move the turbines 600 feet this way or that way, it would free-up a commonly used area for us.' I'm sure there are a myriad of concerns from the recreational boating community and that's what we want to hear."
That covers access on the water but what about access to the water? Could sites for transmission cables coming ashore squeeze out marinas? Cullen answers that if they "see tie-ins to the shoreline that are going to limit the growth of a marina or impact a present marina, plans could be altered to minimize that impact."
Not All GLOWing
When the New York Power Authority announced the Great Lakes Offshore Wind project in April 2009, it began taking comments on its website from the outset and Cullen said the project has gotten "a great deal of support and some non-support." In fact, at least four New York counties and three towns passed resolutions last year opposing any wind farms off their lakeshores. Opposition is based largely on environmental concerns (possible harm to birds and wildlife), economics (the cost efficiency of turbines in the water), and "viewshed" obstruction arguments.
Unlike in ocean waters beyond three miles where offshore wind farms fall under the purview of the U.S. Dept of the Interior, Great Lakes waters are entirely under state jurisdiction (or provincial jurisdiction in Canada). Thus, many of the decisions that can affect boaters will be made at state and local levels regarding the placement, operations, configuration — perhaps even the fate — of Great Lakes offshore wind farms.
"Boaters have a huge stake in a clean environment," says BoatUS Vice President of Government Affairs Margaret Podlich. "We recognize that green technology will be part of our nation's energy future but the jury is still out on how and where offshore wind farms can be compatible with other uses of the water and what that can mean for boating. So it is very important that boaters be well-informed and get engaged early on in the proposal process, on the Great Lakes and anywhere else."
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Grass Roots Grow Deep in
Boaters who love Florida's Biscayne Bay mounted a successful grass roots campaign to preserve their access to the water last August and their victory demonstrates a textbook example of political action where it counts. Faced with an ill-designed plan for restricting access to Biscayne National Park waters to "reduce damage to park resources," boaters found themselves with limited available information, an unusually short public comment period and, worse, only one package of management changes rather than several options as normally put forth in major regulatory revisions.
That led BoatUS and other local organizations to alert the boating public to the proposal, which would have limited anchoring, prevented rafting-up in many popular locations and placed restrictions on beaching boats at several sites. While the plan would have added fixed moorings to accommodate recreational boats, it contained little information on where moorings would be placed or how the National Park Service, which admits to being short on funding, would pay the added costs. BoatUS alone sent 20,000 email alerts to south Florida members, many of whom were not aware of the plan or its potential effect on their enjoyment of Biscayne Bay National Park. Unlike the vast majority of national parks, about 90-percent of visitors to Biscayne come by boat.
"Biscayne National Park is a very special place and we certainly understand the need to keep it that way," said BoatUS Vice President for Government Affairs, Margaret Podlich. "The boaters who use the park are the best advocates for conserving these waters for the future.
"Beside the fact that there are already laws on the books that, with better enforcement, would cover some of the problems outlined in the plan, our concern was that the Environmental Assessment offered only one alternative that would impose major changes on how boaters can use the park and there seemed to be little opportunity for public input, with only a 30-day comment period."
As a result of the grass roots campaign, the park service announced it would withdraw the plan and go back to the drawing board. In an email message to boaters who commented on the plan, Mark Lewis, superintendent of Biscayne National Park, said that features of the plan had not been made "clean enough" and that the public would be "well served by additional public discussion."
Lewis promised to "reach out" to groups who "felt surprised by the current plan" and said the agency would develop any entirely new plan. The change of direction at Biscayne National Park demonstrates, even for boaters who may never visit there, the importance of engaging in public policy issues.
"Regardless of the final outcome at Biscayne, this experience showed, once again, how important it is for boaters to get involved at the grass roots level," Podlich added. That's why BoatUS maintains a list of email addresses for members but Podlich noted that it is important keep your address current. To update your email address — or to be added — so you can be notified concerning state and especially national issues that affect boaters and boating. Update your records at: Membership@BoatUS.
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