Will the structure for releasing water from the Schoharie Reservoir into the Schoharie Creek spell disaster for the Esopus Creek fishery? Trout Unlimited thinks so, according to Ashokan-Pepacton Watershed Chapter member Ed Ostapczuk, who says the issue is not the release of water but the release of cold water.
When the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) obtained a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to undertake repairs on the Gilboa Dam, which holds water in the Schoharie Reservoir, one of the requirements was to look at making water releases from the reservoir to lessen the danger of flooding for residents downstream. With the dam now shored up, the city is building a release chamber that will extract water from the reservoir and send it north into the Schoharie Creek.
The problem is, the chamber’s inlet is at the bottom of the reservoir, where the water is coldest, and that water belongs to the cold-water-loving Esopus fish, say the fisherfolk of Trout Unlimited. Four times a year, the DEP releases a large quantity of water from the Schoharie Reservoir through the 18-mile Shandaken Tunnel into the Esopus Creek. A 2010-11 independent study commissioned by DEP showed that the cold water from the tunnel — often as low as 50 degrees in summer — is beneficial for the trout.
If that cold water is bled off into the Schoharie, the water coming through the tunnel on the way to the Ashokan Reservoir will be 70 degrees or warmer, predicts Ostapczuk, and the result may be fish kills and a lack of trout during parts of fishing season. With the communities along the Esopus reliant on income from visiting anglers, the degradation of the world-class trout stream could be an economic disaster for humans as well as a problem for the fish.
“There’s a limited amount of cold water in the reservoir,” said Ostapczuk. “Recently, a water release from the tunnel was cancelled because there wasn’t enough cold water. Releasing 70-degree water is a violation of the SPDES permit,” the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System regulations that govern all water releases in New York State. However, as upstate residents know from battling problems with water releases from the Ashokan Reservoir into the lower Esopus Creek, enforcement of the SPDES regulations sometimes gives way to expediency when the needs of different groups conflict.
DEP has a constant balancing act to perform as it maintains its 19 upstate reservoirs to provide drinking water for 9 million city residents while observing the rights and needs of people who live around the reservoirs. Residents along the Schoharie Creek have a need for flood prevention through water releases, and Ostapczuk says his group is not opposed to the releases at all — they just want the water taken from the warmer levels of the reservoir.
The cold water from the bottom, when sent north, will go through a two-mile channel to a pump storage facility, to generate extra electricity on high-demand days. By the time the water reaches the Schoharie Creek, it will not longer be cold. “The cold water will mix with the warm water in the storage facility,” pointed out Ostapczuk, “and it’ll be lost.”
Adam Bosch of the DEP said construction of the release chamber at the Schoharie Reservoir began in early July. “It’s a $142 million project,” he said. “It does take water from the bottom, but we’re looking at other ideas too. It’s a difficult balance, making sure we have the ability to get water downstream without creating problems for the Esopus. We’re trying to find way to satisfy both groups. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you don’t try.”
“We’re not opposed to flood control,” emphasized Ostapczuk, who fears the DEP will not adjust its plans without pressure from the community. “This is not trout versus people, but the DEP is misusing a tool that’s going to ruin the Esopus Creek, based on their own studies. I’m not against the DEP. They’re interested in preserving this area, and I appreciate the benefits of them being here — but they’re wrong on this issue.”