Find another way to deal with turbidity and stop sending chocolate-colored water — for the most part — down the lower Esopus Creek, recommends Jeff Gratz, deputy director of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Division in its comments on the Order on Consent between New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regarding the water releases from Ashokan Reservoir.
“We’re very pleased that the Federal government has weighed in with comments that are very much in alignment with Ulster County’s position,” remarked Ulster County Executive Mike Hein.
The county’s comments to DEC indicate that the problem existed before Hurricane Irene, but the EPA refers to last year’s megastorm, stating, “These severe weather conditions, which may occur with more frequency, have caused EPA to reconsider its position regarding the use of the release channel.”
Gratz’s letter goes on to recommend that DEP eliminate operational releases from the Interim Protocol, “pending completion of the planned environmental review, which will provide for a complete evaluation of environmental conditions in the lower Esopus Creek.”
The Interim Protocol is a document drafted in response to the county’s protest over the damage caused to downstream properties by turbid water releases since the fall of 2010. The protocol provides for three types of releases.
Operational releases are designed to siphon off muddy water in order to protect the quality of the New York City drinking water, reducing the need for alum to purify drinking water, since the EPA has determined that excessive alum is harmful to human health.
Community releases consist of clear water, seen as beneficial to downstream habitat, agriculture, and recreation.
Flood mitigation releases are intended to draw down the water level in the reservoir prior to expected storms, providing both turbidity control to New York City and flood control for the lower Esopus.
EPA says community and flood control releases should remain in the Interim Protocol, while alternative means of turbidity reduction should be sought by DEP, in order to replace the operational releases. The Consent Order should be beefed up to include a reopening of the DEP’s structural and engineering analysis of alternatives for turbidity control — the analysis that originally led to the reopening of the Ashokan release channel. Specifically, Gratz encourages “construction of the Shaft 4 connection, which allows diversion of Delaware system water into the Catskill Aqueduct,” thereby introducing more clear water into the system that has required alum treatment.
At this point, Shaft 4 is scheduled to be completed by March 31, 2015.
The EPA’s comments do not refer to the financial penalty that the county requested the DEC impose on DEP to reimburse landowners along the lower Esopus for damage to property. Philip Sweeney, director of the New York City Watershed Oversight Program, said fines are not within the EPA’s purview in this case but would be determined by DEC.