Stefanik scores money for district in spending bill she called ‘reckless’
By Zachary Matson
A handful of North Country infrastructure and environmental projects received funding in a massive federal spending bill approved in the waning days of last year.
The projects include a $2 million earmark for the Ausable River Association, $4 million to expand water services in Ticonderoga, $1.9 million to improve broadband access in Washington and Franklin counties and $122,500 for the town of Moriah police station.
The projects were all promoted by Rep. Elise Stefanik as part of a new earmark process in Congress and wrapped into the sprawling budget bill approved before control of the House shifted to Republicans.
Stefanik voted against the spending bill, calling it a “radical wish list” of Democratic priorities. The budget ultimately included around $28 million in “congressionally-directed” spending supported by the Saratoga County-based Republican.
Ausable River projects
The funding for AsRA represents the nonprofit’s first congressional earmark and will help the organization carry out a river restoration project in Jay, while also conducting a comprehensive review of the East Branch of the Ausable River in Keene to identify and prioritize future restoration projects. Keene has twice unsuccessfully applied for state grants to support a comprehensive plan.
“Not only was this the first (earmark) we have ever gotten, it was the first one we have ever asked for,” said Kelley Tucker, executive director of the river association.
After ice flows flooded parts of Ausable Forks in February, Jay Supervisor Matt Stanley reached out to state and federal offices in search of funding to help mitigate the flood issue. Stefanik’s office suggested an earmark and reached out to AsRA to apply for one.
Tucker said she assumed it was a longshot and hadn’t given the funding a thought as Congress haggled over the details of the spending bill in Washington last month.
“We are a tiny little community, tiny little nonprofit,” Tucker said. “We never imagined getting that kind of focused attention from any federal entity.”
The river association is planning to move forward with a restoration project in Upper Jay this year, while continuing to detail plans for a larger project in Ausable Forks centered on Grove Island just upstream of the confluence of the Ausable’s east and west branches.
Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said a politician’s job is to support their communities — even in legislation they oppose.
“Stefanik’s job is to do the best she can for the communities she represents,” Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said. “She opposed the bill, the bill passed anyway, she found ways to put that spending bill to use in communities she represents.”
The budget bill also included $750,000 to remediate problems with the Beekmantown water supply, $500,000 for a workforce training program at the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce, and $3.6 million to plan and design a new gun range at Fort Drum Army Base.
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Champlain Canal barrier makes slow progress
A slow-moving project to develop an invasive species barrier in the Champlain Canal connecting the Hudson and Champlain watersheds continued to make gradual progress last year.
A provision approved in the National Defense Authorization Act last month enables planning to continue on the project. Once the project is fully designed, it will be eligible for full federal funding.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March published a report outlining a “preferred alternative” of creating a barrier between Champlain Canal locks C8 and C9, the highest point of the canal that flows from Fort Edward north to Whitehall, where it meets the southern reaches of Lake Champlain. The canal is considered a key pathway for aquatic invasive species transiting between the two major watersheds.
The initial planning document envisions constructing a berm across the canal just north of where the Glens Falls Feeder Canal meets the main canal. Boats would be lifted out of the water at the berm, decontaminated and moved to the other side.
Now, the Army Corps and staff at the Lake Champlain Basin Program will conduct a more detailed planning process that examines boat traffic and other impacts to canal commerce, construction specifics, funding and other issues. The next phase will include a formal environmental review, as well as public hearings and comments. Actual construction is still likely years away.
“We are taking the project to the next step,” said Meg Modley, an invasive species specialist at the basin program. “I think awareness is building.”