Dangerous waters?

Trustees are concerned about the safety of swimmers and fishermen. (Photo by Beth Blis)

The recent deaths of two fishermen in Lamontville have spurred concern among some village trustees about the safety of the Esopus Creek. State police investigators said the creek bed had shifted, causing a significant drop-off point where there wasn’t one before, and Kenneth Garland lost his footing and was swept away in the current when he tried to step forward. Jeffrey Galloway drowned trying to save his friend.

“Rocks have shifted and a lot of soil has been carried away,” said trustee Kelly Myers. “Gil Farms lost 30 acres. And, it went somewhere.” (John Gil of Gil Farms did not return calls to confirm how much acreage has been eroded.)


Myers believes that heavy siltation and erosion combined with significant amounts of rainfall has caused the creek bed to shift. She attributes some of this to the high volume water releases from the Ashokan Resevoir, and she’s worried over what changes to the creek bed may have occurred in Saugerties. She believes the DEP should study the creek bed and assure municipalities it’s safe, and fix it if it isn’t. But the DEP isn’t buying it.

“It is unlikely that the turbidity itself released from Ashokan would significantly impact the topography of the bed of the Lower Esopus,” said DEP spokesperson Ferell Sklerov in an email. “The type of particles suspended in the water that was released were colloidal clays (extremely small).  Rather, high rates of water flow could affect the form of the stream. It is more likely that a spill from the reservoir in combination with a large storm event in the lower Esopus basin, like what occurred this past spring, could mobilize sand and gravel and shift large rocks.”

The Ashokan reservoir contains two basins. Sediment settles to the bottom of the west basin, and the clean water is then allowed to flow into the east basin. The turbid water is directed to a “waste channel,” which discharges into the Esopus.

Last winter, nearly 500,000 gallons per day of turbid water were released into the Esopus, which Myers says caused several problems including siltation and erosion. Higher than normal water levels in the creek may also have caused new ridges and valleys to form in the creek bed, like the one responsible for the deaths of the two Lamontville men, said Myers. Highly turbid water can cause problems for fish and plant life in the creek and allow pathogens to flourish, raising concerns over the water quality. Now, Myers says the DEP is negotiating privately with the DEC to approve an even higher daily release maximum of one million gallons. (The DEP did not confirm this.)


Town committees forming

Turbidity came up at last week’s Town Board meeting too, when James “Spider” Barbour told the board that muddy water is a natural phenomenon.

“The water has a long way to go before it reaches the Ashokan reservoir,” he said. “It is important to realize that a lot of natural mud gets into the Esopus in addition to what comes down from the reservoir.”

Contributing to the silt problem is a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requirement that New York reduce its use of alum, which causes the silt to sink to the bottom of the reservoir, keeping the water cleaner and reducing the need to pour turbid water into the Esopus.

In the meantime, two committees of citizens of the towns along the Esopus have formed. One is composed of experts in the field of water quality control, and one is open to the public, Barbour said. The groups are gathering information to develop proposals for solving the problems of reservoir overflows and local siltation. The committees are especially interested in damage to property caused by the overflows.

One problem in solving the problems is getting accurate information on water flows and turbidity, Barbour said. Aerial observation is the most accurate way of obtaining this information in areas where it is difficult to reach the water’s edge. Aerial observation is expensive, and much of the river has not been charted. For instance, Councilman Fred Costello asked whether there’s good information about the effect of silt from the reservoir on the quality of Hudson River water. Although some towns take their water from the river, Barbour said he does not know of any studies of siltation downstream of the Esopus.

Village trustee Patrick Landewe said the village is seeking grant money to perform such a study.

He hopes the in-house study will help to identify at what volume sand and rocks may begin to move in the creek, among other things. The study may also map the creek bed as it exists today, which would provide a baseline against which to measure future changes.

One of the problems with identifying problems causes by the Ashokan releases, Landewe says, is that no baseline existed before.

“We don’t yet know what changes may have occurred here,” said Landewe.

According to Myers, the Army Corp of Engineers also plan to map the creek using a technique called LIDAR. Similar to RADAR, LIDAR can be used to identify contours by using different types of light to identify a target.

Additionally, a questionnaire has been sent to property owners along the Esopus, asking for information on any damages believed to have been caused by the releases, including siltation, erosion, and changes in the geography of the land surrounding the creek. Site visits are planned to verify the results before a plan of action can be formed by the DEP to correct any problems caused.

In the long run, planned improvements in the New York City reservoir system should reduce the city’s reliance on the Ashokan reservoir and thus the need to spill water into the Esopus, Barbour said. The projects are expected to take four years to complete.

Landewe says he believes that the village beach will be safe for swimmers this year. No major changes in the creek bed at the beach have been detected so far, though some shifting is normal. Landewe says that any changes that may have occurred will likely be discovered at the end of the month, when swimming docks are put into place at the beach.

A recent in-house test performed at the beach shows that bacteria levels in the water are safe. Official testing by the Ulster County Board of Health is due to be done just before the beach opens on July 1, and then monthly until the end of the swimming season.

n June 8, samples were taken from the east and west ends of the beach, showing E. Coli levels of 17.1 and 18.9 particles per 100 mL. Generally acceptable levels of E. Coli at designated swimming beaches is 235 parts per 100 mL, according to EPA website.

Additional reporting by David Gordon