Ulster County residents want New York City to spend more money locally on dealing with flooding and muddy water, and New York State has promised to involve the public in defining the scope of environmental impact studies of the city’s turbid water releases into the lower Esopus.
On the rainy night of Monday, January 23, well over 300 people packed the student lounge at SUNY Ulster to fire questions and complaints at representatives of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regarding local damage related to the city’s water supply system.
The discourse remained civil, but many speakers expressed anger or grief as they addressed DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland and DEC Executive Deputy Commissioner Marc Gerstman. The event was organized by Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, whose opening remarks defined three major areas of resentment on the part of local residents toward the DEP.
Over the past ten years or so, cracks in the aqueduct conveying water to New York City have flooded homes in Wawarsing, located in the southwestern part of the county. The city has begun the long-term process of repairing the aqueduct and has offered to buy out homeowners, but Hein said the buyout funds are insufficient and added, “If the leaks in Wawarsing were happening in Queens, they would be fixed tomorrow.”
He stated his belief that the city does not pay its fair share of local taxes on land it owns upstate, pointing out that the cost of disputing the city’s assessments can bankrupt a small municipality. “Ulster County is subsidizing New York City water rates,” he said.
Hein also presented the “mud or flood” dilemma faced by residents along the lower Esopus River, which has been subject to releases of turbid water from the Ashokan Reservoir. The releases are designed to siphon off suspended silt from the city’s drinking water supply and to reduce reservoir levels in order to prevent flooding downstream. But the muddy water harms fish habitat in the former first-class trout-fishing stream, degrades Town of Esopus drinking water, causes localized flooding, and discourages tourism. Furthermore, Hein feels the city’s current goal of maintaining the reservoir at 90 percent capacity does not sufficiently protect against flooding.
Around 60 people signed up to address the commissioners, and about half of them made it to the microphone during the two-and-a-half hour session.
Hurley supervisor Gary Bellows was the first audience member to speak, commenting that in 1987, the DEP’s chief engineer said there was no way to release water from the reservoir, but now the waste channel is in use for water releases. He said the current protocol for preventing flooding should be changed. “Either drop the voids down 20 percent in the spring and fall [when the majority of floods occur], and run at 10 percent the rest of the time,” or offer to buy out residents of the town at 2005 market value. “Then if you want to flood there, all you have to do is take care of the farmland.”
Strickland replied that Bellows’ suggestion would be taken into account as the agencies review the Interim Protocol currently regulating water releases, which specifies that releases be halted when the downstream flow gage reaches a certain height. He said that closing the release channel long-term would eventually lead to an overflow at the reservoir spillway, which also leads into the lower Esopus but would not produce as much lowering of the water level.
Gerstman added that the Interim Protocol will continue to be refined with technical input and welcomed the public’s participation in the process.
Kate Hudson of the environmental organization Riverkeeper accused the DEP and DEC of failing to keep promises made last year to engage the working group of stakeholders in developing the Interim Protocol. She expressed the hope that the group would be involved in defining the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement that is about to created.
“This working group had the opportunity, and availed itself very late in the day, to comment on the protocol,” replied Strickland. “With regard to scope, the more public the better. We’re very much supportive of public scoping sessions. We have already conducted 75 onsite interviews of people along the lower Esopus to gather information for the scope.”
When Gilbert Hailes of Saugerties asked if there’s a solution to the muddy water, Strickland observed that when the city finishes the Croton filtration plant, a connection will be made between the Delaware and Catskill watershed. “Then we may not need as much Catskill water,” he said. “What then? What is the protocol going to be when we’re not drawing as much water?”
Hein retorted, “We didn’t build the reservoir system — you guys did. If it’s faltering now and you may not need the water — but you have to manage your water system in a way that doesn’t harm our community!”
“That’s what the Interim Protocol is designed to do,” said Strickland. “Demand for water in New York City has gone down from 1.4 billion gallons per day to about 1 billion. That’s more water we can make available for upstate.”
‘We need dredging…’
Laura Smith of Wawarsing spoke of moldy basements and how the ground in her area has become uneven due to the leaking aqueduct. “Water comes up through the basement floors. My elderly, disabled neighbor fell into a sinkhole. When I bought my house, I had no knowledge of the leaks.”
Strickland said he had seen Smith’s house and agreed that the buyout program, which combines $3.7 million in state funds and $3.7 million from the city, is being put into effect. “I don’t know if it’s enough, but let’s push this process through.”
Recently elected Shandaken town council member Alfred Higley asked, “Why does New York City continue to buy up land on back roads in the town of Shandaken and drive up taxes for the rest of the town? You don’t pay the same rate as the rest of the town. Also I was in the Schoharie Valley, and they’re working up there like mad. We need dredging in Shandaken, and we need it bad.”
“There are stream management plans throughout the watersheds that are put together by Soil and Water Conservation Districts,” said Gerstman, “to address issues of flooding. Those are done by experts based upon the science of stream morphology. It’s important that we involve these experts, because fixing the problem in one location can exacerbate problems for downstream communities. The table is set — there will be funding announced to get this work done.”
“We own some 2600 acres in Shandaken,” said Strickland, “and we pay about $1 million in taxes. About a year ago, the city and the town did settle our liability. That process has been resolved to our mutual satisfaction, as far as I know.” He referred to a fund set up by the city for towns to use on tax counsel in disputes with New York City.
Al Higley, Sr., also requested dredging of creeks and suggested dredging the reservoir to prevent flooding.
“We’ve looked at dredging and will continue to do so,” replied Strickland. “But dredging a reservoir adds very little volume.”
Morgan Turner made the observation that the 2005 flood sent water across the Kingston traffic circle and as far up as the Kenco store. He said the reactivation of the waste channel was made partly in response to that flood, and that Hurricane Irene did not do nearly as much damage downstream of the reservoir, suggesting that the channel had served its purpose to some extent. “The problem is mud,” he stated, asking if preventing turbidity coming from upstream could be made a priority.
Strickland said the DEP is reallocating funding from land acquisition to stream restoration and referred to the stream management plan currently in the making to address erosion of clay soils on streambanks in Shandaken.
Dennis Van Wagenen told of the flooding of his home in Esopus and described “the devastating toll it takes on our families and friends. With the last flood, not only did it take my back yard, it took all my hopes and dreams. Is there any way of getting another release point? Is it possible to leave the reservoir at 77 percent? It would be a godsend if we could find some solution that lets us have our homes and New York City have its drinking water.”
Hein closed the meeting with the question, “Where do we go from here? Are we going to have fundamental changes in our relationship New York City DEP? I’m the eternal optimist. The answer is yet to be determined, but we are hopeful.”++