With recent rains and snowmelt raising local water levels, Hurley supervisor Gary Bellows welcomed the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announcement that it was starting flood-preventive releases of “high-quality” water — as opposed to muddy water — into the lower Esopus Creek. But Bellows also expressed frustration with the city’s procedures for decision-making regarding the releases.
According to the state-issued Interim Release Protocol, the reservoir is to be kept below 90 percent capacity, to prevent downstream flooding during high-water events. Bellows feels the city is not doing a good job at maintaining that level, which he thinks is too high.
“There is a lot of data out there,” said Bellows, “and I think that when you see over a seven-day forecast that there’s a prediction for above average rainfall and you know there’s 20 inches of snow over Belleayre Mountain, you should be able to figure out how much water is going to pour into the Ashokan Reservoir. I was surprised we were at 93 percent before they increased the release from 150 million to 600 million gallons per day.”
A press release was issued by the DEP at the start of the releases on January 9, stating that 300 million gallons per day was the goal for January 10. The statement added, “After consulting with Ulster County officials, it was determined that the release rate should be increased slowly in order to reduce the risk of ice dams forming along the lower Esopus Creek.” The DEP website showed the Ashokan Reservoir at 93.5 percent capacity on January 15.
Bellows is thankful that the releases are occurring, but he fears for the 12 families in the Town of Hurley who tend to experience flooding when water releases are high. “I hope we don’t have any significant rainfall in the next week or so because it takes a long time to drop the reservoir three percent. We’d like to see it kept at 80 percent, not 90. There’s no statistical data that supports keeping it at that level. I think then we could safeguard everything.”
Water releases from the reservoir are designed to forestall flooding and to siphon off turbid water from the reservoir and keep it out of New York City’s drinking water. When the releases began in 2011, they were welcomed as flood-preventive measures by the downstream towns, until it became clear that they sometimes actually caused flooding and turned out to be a source of damaging turbidity when storms stirred up mud upstream.
A press release from the DEP indicated that the releases over the past year have been low in turbidity. Compared to a standard for drinking water of five nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) or less, the turbidity of the lower Esopus has ranged from two NTU to an occasional spike of 140 NTU due to storm runoff. Water released during the current period is expected to remain around 4.1 NTU.
Saugerties supervisor Greg Helsmoortel, who was recently voted back into the position after a hiatus, said he’s still getting up to speed on the issue of the DEP releases. He met with members of the Ashokan Release Working Group (ARWG) on January 14 for a briefing. Saugerties has not suffered so much from flooding in the past but has had problems with turbidity, which creates such problems as interference with recreation at its beaches. Helsmoortel is concerned about the present releases but does not object as long as they are controlled.
He added, “We want the DEP to be more considerate of all of us downstream.”