Riverkeeper urges strict review of NYC reservoir releases

Environmentalists say the creek’s ecosystem has been disrupted by the releases

Environmentalists say the creek’s ecosystem has been disrupted by the releases

The environmental group Riverkeeper is engaging Saugerties residents in a letter and email campaign to ask the state to require the strictest review possible for New York City’s discharges of muddy reservoir water into the Esopus Creek.

Critics say higher flow from the releases has caused property erosion and environmental damage.

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“Everyone in this room shares a common concern,” said Town Board member Leeanne Thornton at a July 14 meeting at the Senior Center. “We’re not happy about the releases … We’re committed as a town to do everything that we can to bring about some changes in Albany regarding what’s going on.”

Saugerties recently joined the Coalition of the Lower Esopus Watershed Communities, which was formed to have a greater voice on Esopus turbidity issues.

“Farmers had some very specific impacts that they’ve suffered, including clogging of their irrigation equipment and inability to access fields because of high-volume releases,” said Kate Hudson, Riverkeeper’s watershed program director.

The water discharges are necessary because the city’s system is unfiltered. Based on the design of the reservoir, the West Basin is supposed to give turbid water a chance to settle out, Hudson explained. The problem is that the DEP, under pressure to keep water supplies plentiful, has kept the Ashokan Reservoir near 100 percent. Heavy rains will cause the West Basin to overflow into the East Basin.

New limits on the use of the chemical aluminum sulfate, which helps the particulates suspended in the reservoir system settle to the bottom, has also played a role.

“The DEC sees that use of alum as having an environmental impact and they are directing the city to reduce their use of alum,” said Hudson. “As a result, they’re going to have to reduce the turbidity of the water that they’re putting into the Catskill Aqueduct. As a result, they’re going to have to discharge more water (into the Esopus), at least under the current scenario.”

Riverkeeper views the discharges as an unpermitted release of pollutants. Hudson said based on previous experience, “it’s unlikely the DEC would take that position with the city.” Hence the need for public pressure.

Now called the Ashokan Release Channel, the waste channel used to discharge water to the Lower Esopus was part of the original design and construction of Ashokan Reservoir 100 years ago, but it wasn’t meant for discharge of turbid water.

“It was never used until 2006,” said Hudson. “And the reason it started being used in 2006 is because the Gilboa Dam at the Schoharie Reservoir was failing and they needed to get a whole bunch of water out of the reservoir so they could start doing repair work on the dam.

“It was not until 2010 that they proposed using the waste channel as a turbidity control mechanism for the Catskill system, which is something different from just using it as an emergency measure to be able to do a repair on the dam.”

As Saugerties Lighthouse keeper, village Trustee Patrick Landewe has seen firsthand the effects of muddy water as it pours from the creek into the Hudson River. He thinks the DEP’s approach is headed in the wrong direction.

“There’s more water available and people are using less,” Landewe said. “They’re not managing it properly.”

He suggested getting the New York Department of State involved since the Lower Esopus is in a designated Coastal Zone Area. Another state agency involved might strengthen the town’s case.

He also said that part of the designation includes scenic value. Any degradation could affect fishing and tourism.

“If the creek is running brown, do you think fishermen will be coming to the creek to launch their boats?” he asked.

Ulster County Legislator Chris Allen, who represents the town and village of Saugerties, said the city had the opportunity to approach the problem properly with filtration plants, but squandered it.

“They could have built these filtration plants 30, 40 years ago when there was federal grant money available, and at a fraction of the cost,” he said. “It’s the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room. Nobody wants to talk about the $8-$10 billion solution to the problem.”

The DEC public comment period closes Aug. 22.

Comments can be addressed to NYSDEC Central Office – Division of Environmental Permits, Attn: Stephen Tomasik, Project Manager, 625 Broadway, 4th Floor, Albany, N.Y. 12233-1750.

Comments can be sent by email to ashokan@gw.state.ny.us. Riverkeeper also has a suggested letter that can be edited and personalized on its website at riverkeeper.org/get-involved/take-action. Look for the link “Demand Alternatives to Flushing Mud Down the Esopus Creek.”

“We think that there’s actually a lot of alternatives that are possible,” said Hudson. “The reason why they started to do the releases to the Lower Esopus is because nobody ever made [DEP] do an environmental impact statement before. They were never required to look at the impacts to the Lower Esopus, and so they just picked the cheapest way to control turbidity in the water supply system.”