A new report commissioned by opponents of a plan to sell Kingston’s municipal water to a private bottling company raises a host of environmental and legal concerns, and recommends the review process be shut down until an up-to-date report on just how much water the Cooper Lake reservoir has to give is finished.
Citizens’ groups in both Kingston and Woodstock have railed against the plan since September, when the proposal by California-based Niagara Bottling to open a plant on a vacant industrial site near the former IBM complex became public. The plan calls for Niagara to purchase a maximum of 1.75 million gallons daily from the city’s water supply at Cooper Lake. That water, along with spring water trucked in from other locations, would be bottled on-site for distribution throughout the Northeast. The proposed plant, Niagara says, would bring about 120 jobs to the area; payments by the company to the Kingston Water Department would help fund some $18 million in infrastructure upgrades and replacements needed in the next five years.
But opponents of the plan in Kingston and Woodstock, where the city draws water from Cooper Lake, have mounted a fierce campaign against the plan. They argue that bottled water is an environmental evil and that the sale of so much water could have serious negative consequences for the watershed. Earlier this month, the opposition added some scientific weight to its arguments when the group SaveCooperLake.org released a report it commissioned by Tivoli-based hydrologist Paul A. Rubin. Richard Buck, who sits on the steering committee of SaveCooperLake.org, said the group commissioned the report to establish a baseline of facts as the Town of Ulster prepares to lead an environmental review of the project.
“Personally, we believe that the sale of municipal water for resale by a corporation is morally and probably legally wrong,” said Buck. “But what we found out [from Rubin’s report] is that there are a lot of unanswered questions around this project.”
Rubin, whose 30-year career as a hydrologist includes a stint working for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in the Ashokan watershed, spent about a month preparing the 16-page report which lays out some of those questions in detail. The report cites eight potential areas of concern, including potential reduction in water levels at Cooper Lake, the potential to exceed the Kingston Water Department’s own reported safe yield from the system and the reduction of groundwater availability in Woodstock wells. The report also addresses legal issues around the sale by Kingston of water which originates in Woodstock and feeds into New York City’s water supply as well as water rights and potential revenue sharing among the involved communities.
“I was hired by Save Cooper Lake, but they pretty much gave me free rein,” said Rubin. “They said, here are our concerns, take a look.”
Safe yield estimate
One of the key findings in Rubin’s study is that the potential drawdown from the Niagara plant could exceed the city’s safe yield estimate of 6.1 million gallons per day. Rubin arrived at the figure by calculating maximum daily usage in Kingston and the Town of Ulster (4.6 MGD) and the approved, but as yet unbuilt, Hudson Landing Project (0.55 MGD) along with the 1.75 MGD requested by Niagara. The resulting number, 6.9 MGD, represents 113 percent of the safe yield.
Officials at the Kingston Water Department, however contend that a leak abatement program scheduled for this year would boost the safe yield enough to meet Niagara’s need while maintaining a cushion in the safe yield figure. KWD Superintendent Judith Hansen has also said that while Niagara has formally requested a maximum of 1.75 MGD in its application to the department, actual daily use would likely be far less.
Rubin’s report goes on the question the safe yield figure itself. Rubin’s notes that the figure of 6.1 MGD was calculated back in 1961 and has not been updated since. In the report Rubin suggested that the environmental review currently underway be halted until a new safe yield is calculated.
“If you’re in charge of the water supply for a major city, you don’t work off of 54-year-old data,” said Rubin. “This should have been updated annually.”
Hansen responded by saying that the factors that go into calculating maximum yield had not changed over the years and thus there was no reason to believe that the figure was incorrect. The number she said was based on the size of the watershed, the capacity of the reservoir and conditions during the driest period on record — in Kingston’s case, a 1957 drought.
“I really don’t understand how that number will change if none of those factors have changed,” said Hansen, who said she had not yet had a chance to read Rubin’s report.
Hansen added that a new safe yield figure would likely be calculated later this year as the department weighs raising the capacity at Cooper Lake as part of a state-mandated dam upgrade. She also said that the department would be happy to furnish any new figures requested by the Ulster Town Board, which is serving as lead agency on the environmental review.
Rubin’s report points out that meeting Niagara’s demand for 1.75 MGD would represent a 44.9 percent increase in daily water use and use 29 percent of the city’s entire safe yield. That, Rubin argued, could “limit or preclude” future business expansion in Kingston and the Town of Ulster.
“You’re talking about tying up nearly one third of the available water leaving virtually no reserve in the event of drought,” said Rubin. “You’re basically tying up Kingston’s future.”
The report also raises a number of legal questions based on decisions and agreements dating to the creation of the Cooper Lake reservoir in the 1920s. Rubin’s report suggests that both the Town of Woodstock and New York City have a legal interest in water from the Cooper Lake watershed and thus should have a more significant role in the environmental review. That review, Rubin goes on to write, should include a full airing of water rights issues around the project. Woodstock has never drawn water from Cooper Lake, but according to a 1926 agreement, it maintains the right to access water from the watershed.
“It is important that the Town of Woodstock reserve and not forfeit, diminish or jeopardize water supply options that may one day be needed.” Rubin writes.
Buck said the report had been forwarded to a number of local and state officials and would be included in the public record of the environmental review for the Niagara project. He added that he hoped the information would lead to a more critical examination of potential impacts from the proposal.
“We just felt that everybody needed to know the facts,” said Buck. “We want local decision-makers to know what’s going on so they can act on it.”