Scoping the impacts of NYC reservoir releases

The muddy creek, near the lighthouse during a release several years ago.  Photo courtesy SaugertiesLighthouse.com.

The muddy creek, near the lighthouse during a release several years ago.

While flipping through a local newspaper archive, I came across an item from the turn of the century about a keeper at the Saugerties Lighthouse who collected water samples from the river:

Lighthouse Keeper Theodore De Shong, at the mouth of the lower creek, has been appointed by the New York city water commission to get samples of the water from the Hudson river each day for an indefinite period, the water to be taken any time agreeable to Mr. De Shong, and forwarded to the city authorities for analysis.

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This was around the time that the city started eyeing upstate creeks and prospecting for reservoir locations. Within a few years, plans for the Ashokan Reservoir were underway, damming the Esopus Creek.

Over a century later, the lighthouse keeper is once again looking at water quality and communicating with the New York City water authorities about conditions at the mouth of the creek. However, this time, the situation is not as agreeable. The city is not seeking a new supply of water, but looking for a way to cheaply get rid of the dirty water that it can’t drink. I say “cheaply” because the city is externalizing the cost of properly handling turbidity by dumping it downstream from the Ashokan Reservoir into the lower Esopus Creek. When the DEP decided upon its turbidity control plan, it did a cost-benefit analysis that did not factor in environmental and economic costs to the lower Esopus. Now, after the fact, we are getting the environmental review that should have been conducted at the outset. Now is the time to turn up the pressure on the New York City DEP to find alternatives to dumping turbid water into our creek.

Saugerties residents have the opportunity until Aug. 22 to comment on the scope of the environmental impact study. This is our chance to voice our concerns and influence what impacts should be investigated and what alternatives should be considered. I, for one, will be focusing my remarks on the Saugerties Coastal Area, the area where the Esopus Creek mixes with the Hudson River, because that is the area with which I am most familiar. The top of the Lighthouse tower offers an overview of the Saugerties waterfront: the habitat area of the Esopus Estuary stretching south to Glasco and north to Malden; the scenic area of wooded slopes and steep bluffs; and the active waterfront of marinas, docks and historic buildings.

Saugerties residents enjoy the waterfront for many reasons, including important ecological, aesthetic, and economic values. Fortunately, these values have been recognized by the State of New York and enshrined in state designations of a Significant Fish & Wildlife Habitat, a Scenic Area of Statewide Significance, and a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan. These designations are important because they give us specific regulatory hooks to hang our hats on when commenting on the draft scope for the environmental impact study. They also offer additional reviews and protections. Unfortunately, the draft scope does not adequately address the Coastal Zone.

The Esopus Estuary is an area around the mouth of the creek extending north to Malden and south to Glasco. This habitat is so important, it is deemed irreplaceable by the state. The designation as a Significant Fish & Wildlife Habitat and its official habitat narrative or description are an integral and enforceable element of state coastal policy. Reservoir operations are listed among examples of activities which could destroy or significantly impair the habitat. The habitat narrative states unequivocally: “Operational reservoir releases should not adversely affect water quality nor excessively increase turbidity in order to avoid significant impairment to the habitat. Reservoir operations should be consistent with habitat protection.” The habitat impairment test described in the Esopus Estuary designation should be specifically addressed in the draft scope. The habitat narrative can be viewed here.

Ulster North Scenic Area of Statewide Significance is a designation that recognizes the aesthetic value of the Saugerties waterfront. The scenic designation describes how the Esopus Creek is a particularly critical scenic component. Often views are contained and focused to the banks and curves of the creek. Reservoir releases must be assessed to determine whether they would be likely to impair a scenic resource. Since views of the water are an important component of the scenic area, and the Esopus Creek is a unifying feature, any visible degradation of water quality impairs the scenic beauty. The draft scope fails to mention the scenic area by name. It should include specific mention of the designated scenic area so that visual resource assessment can be tied to coastal consistency review. A description of the designated scenic area is available here.

The Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan for the village of Saugerties was established in 1985, one of the first in the state. It hasn’t been updated since then, but it is nevertheless relevant to the Ashokan releases and the draft scope. Within a community having an approved LWRP, state agency actions must comply with that LWRP, taking into account the social, economic and environmental interests of the village and its citizens in such matters that would affect natural resources, water flows, shoreline damage, and recreation. The village’s LWRP was designed to encourage and develop appropriate water-dependent and water-enhanced uses of the waterfront area. Prolonged turbid releases discourages and degrades these uses, to the detriment of tourism, with impacts to the local economy that extend beyond the duration of turbid releases. These sorts of socio-economic impacts should be quantified and analyzed. The village’s LWRP can be viewed here.

I encourage others who care about the Saugerties waterfront to submit comments. Personalized messages get the attention of regulators. Tell what you enjoy about the waterfront and describe the impacts you’ve noticed. Point out things that need to be studied. Suggest alternative ways to deal with the turbid water. Comments can be emailed to Ashokan@gw.dec.state.ny.us or sent by regular mail to Stephen Tomasik, NYSDEC – Division of Environmental Permits, 625 Broadway, 4th Floor, Albany, NY 12233-1750. Click here to read the draft scope or learn more about the EIS process. With enough public input, hopefully we can reach a solution for the Ashokan Reservoir that protects our waterfront while meeting the city’s drinking water needs.