Out of the loop on Ashokan releases

Releases during Hurricane Irene made the situation worse (Robert Ford)

Recently the state DEC fined New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection $1.55 million for releases of turbid water from the Ashokan Reservoir that caused massive erosion, leading to environmental and property damage around the Esopus Creek last year. But Saugerties supervisor Kelly Myers sees the acronym-on-acronym fine as a backroom deal that didn’t take into account any input from the communities hurt by the releases.

The pattern of disrespect for upstate communities in the watershed seems to be continuing, Myers said, “they’re always out of the loop.”

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“You know, we met [the Ashokan Release Working Group] the Friday before the Department of Environmental Conservation sent out the [press] release, and they never said a word to us about it?” she said.

Myers is a member of the Ashokan Release Working Group, comprised of supervisors, mayors, and governmental representatives of towns and villages that flank the Lower Esopus Creek. They’re supposed to be in regular contact with agencies like the DEP and DEC.

The Ashokan is a major source of drinking water for New York City, overseen by the DEP.

The $1.55 million breaks down like this: $100,000 will be paid directly, $500,000 is suspended pending completion of projects relating to cleaning up the particulates, and $950,000 will be placed in escrow to fund projects in the Lower Esopus Creek. These include two stream gauges, development and implementation of a stream management plan, and hiring a technical review consultant to advise the Ashokan Working Group.

Myers doubts the projects will be as beneficial as those the local towns would have suggested.

“They won’t use the fine money to fund projects like helping restore the farms in Hurley or dredging the creek in Saugerties, but will use it for projects that they want,” Myers said of the DEC and the DEP.

“This is the same thing that has happened in the past,” she added.

Angered by the release of billions of gallons of turbid water from the Ashokan over the last year, the working group demanded action, Myers said, and an interim agreement between the DEC and DEP over the number of gallons of water that could be released from the reservoir was reached last year.

The DEP, with support from state Senator John Bonacic, wanted to lower the water level in the reservoir to 90 percent so that the extra 10 percent of space remaining could be used to handle storm water runoff into the Ashokan.

Last year, during the height of Tropical Storm Irene, the DEP was releasing water from the reservoir into the Lower Esopus that combined with the record rainfall, causing the Esopus to overflow its banks. The rushing waters caused massive damage in towns that line the creek. The town of Plattekill was nearly wiped from the map, Phoenicia was severally damaged, and farms in the town of Hurley along the creek saw much of their topsoil washed downstream to Saugerties, where new sandbars were formed, making for tough passage out of the mouth of the creek.

Myers said the problem with the DEC and the DEP, is that “they make these backroom deals, and the towns, villages and farmers suffer.”

“Already the interim agreement on how many gallons can be released has been waived by the DEC, making that agreement meaningless,” Myers said.

Myers has been in contact with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office about getting funds to have the creek dredged, but Schumer, “has yet to call me back,” Myers said.

Schumer was trying to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for the dredging.

“He was here in town last year to announce that money would be coming to dredge the creek, but no money has been allocated for the project,” Myers said.

“We almost lost the Coast Guard ship last winter because of the silting of the creek,” she added. (Because of the silting and sandbars the ship has a tough time getting in and out of the creek.)

“We need the Coast Guard here, economically and environmentally,” Myers said. The Coast Guard crew lives in the area, shops in the area, and eats here.

It was the crew of the Coast Guard cutter that helped the owners of the Dutch Ale House name its own micro-brewed beer. They told the owners that the first boat in a fleet is always named after a woman and that that should apply to a microbreweries’ first beer, which is why the beer is named Karyn’s Pale Ale.

“The Coast Guard means so much to this town and village,” Myers said. “It keeps the route of commerce from Kingston to Albany open.”

The agreement between the DEC and the DEP also “establishes a deadline of this December for the city to propose two turbidity-reduction projects on the Upper Esopus and commits the city to allocate $750,000 to fund those projects,” according to a release about the agreement.

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