Esopus releases can be thrilling, dangerous

After leaving the Shandaken tunnel through the portal, water passes under Route 28 and spills into the Esopus Creek. (photos by Violet Snow)

The economy of Phoenicia revolves, to a significant extent, around the Esopus Creek, which attracts visitors for fishing, tubing, swimming, canoeing, and kayaking. How much water is flowing down the creek at any given time is influenced by the 18-mile-long Shandaken tunnel, which conveys water from the Schoharie Reservoir in Greene County to the Esopus. The creek spills into the Ashokan Reservoir in Olive, whence an aqueduct delivers the water to New York City faucets.

Water flows continuously through the tunnel at a low rate, in an effort to maintain optimum water levels in the two reservoirs. Four times each summer, larger amounts of water are released in order to raise the level of the creek for recreational purposes — usually for kayak and canoe trips and races. It pays to be aware of these releases, which make the creek faster, deeper, and more turbulent — ideal for boating, exciting for tubers, but also potentially hazardous.

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The Shandaken portal, where water emerges from the tunnel.

The tunnel is part of the New York City water system, which is responsible for regulating the release of water through the Shandaken portal, said Adam Bosch, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). However, the extra releases are prompted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in response to requests from groups such as the Kayak and Canoe Club of New York, the Appalachian Mountain Club, American Whitewater, and the American Canoe Association. Bosch said the normal release rate through the Shandaken portal is 150 to 300 million gallons per day, and that amount is doubled during the recreational releases, ramping up rapids, for an faster ride, and adding volume so boats are less likely to strike rocks.

Adventurous tubers, riding giant inner tubes down the creek, also look forward to the water releases. “They make higher waves and faster water for the adrenaline-rush tubers,” said Harry Jameson of Town Tinker Tube Rentals. “But they’re not recommended for first-timers or for younger children. When a release is happening, I put a post out that the water is going to be really fast, and those folks should wait for another day.”

Since 2002, there have been four deaths on the Esopus that occurred when a tuber or kayaker has been sucked into a “strainer,” a pile of fallen trees where the pressure of the current pulls victims underwater. Jameson regularly clears woody debris from the section of the creek used by his customers, but strainers are occasionally found several miles upstream of Phoenicia. In 2015, a teenager died on the day of a water release when she and her father attempted to tube from a location no longer used by tubing companies because of the danger of a well-known strainer. Rescuers had to request that the water release be halted in order to recover the girl’s body. People out on the water are advised to avoid downed trees at all times but especially during recreational releases.

Swimmers, too, should beware of strong currents and deeper water on release weekends.

This year, an augmented release took place on June 3-4, and the others are scheduled for July 15-16, September 2-4, and October 7-8. According to Wendy Rosenbach of DEC, the time it takes for the water to get from Schoharie Reservoir to the event site is taken into account so boaters can start out early Saturday morning and continue through the afternoon or evening of Sunday (Monday for Labor Day weekend). DEC considers many factors when evaluating requests for releases, including water supply storage levels, cold water volume in Schoharie Reservoir, and turbidity of the water diverted through the Shandaken portal. Turbidity, or suspended sediment, is bad for drinking water quality and for fish. Last year’s drought caused so much turbidity in the Schoharie that releases were curtailed in October at the request of DEC, to protect trout from spawning in muddy water.

A 2010-11 independent study commissioned by DEP showed that cold water coming through the tunnel from the Schoharie is beneficial for trout, the primary quarry of fisherfolk on the Esopus Creek, known as a world-class fly-fishing stream. However, fishing guide Hank Rope said the cold water is generally depleted by August, when the water released is often as high as 70 degrees, making the fish lethargic and giving them a tendency to hide in cooler regions. In early summer, the released water might be in the 50s, too cold for the trout, and even a slight hike in the regular, ongoing releases can result in a morning of poor fishing — although warming by the sun may lead to better prospects later in the day.

The Esopus Creek, where it is joined by water from the Shandaken tunnel.

As for the weekends of the recreational releases, fishing guide Mark Loete said it’s not safe to be in the water. “Occasionally people say the water’s higher and more turbid, so you can sneak up on the fish better, but in general you’re risking your life standing in that creek. One possible advantage is it washes away some of the Didymo,” the invasive algae known as “rock snot,” which degrades fish habitat.

A controversy arose in 2015, when DEP made plans to build structures for releasing some of the Schoharie water into the north-flowing Schoharie Creek as a means of flood prevention. Fishermen feared the cold water at the bottom of the reservoir would no longer come to the Esopus trout. Bosch said DEP is working on devising a way to take the releases into the Schoharie, scheduled to begin in 2020, from the upper, warmer layers of the reservoir.

When the Shandaken tunnel was constructed in the 1920s, it was said to be the longest continuous tunnel in the world. According to a 1922 engineering magazine, the concrete-lined tunnel was expected to use 2.5 million pounds of explosives to excavate to an average depth of 600 feet. The tunnel was built to supplement water in the Ashokan Reservoir, which has a capacity of 128 billion gallons. The 17.5-billion gallon Schoharie Reservoir fills rapidly and is kept at proper levels by diversion of water through the tunnel, regulated through the intake chamber at the reservoir, not through the Shandaken portal, said Bosch.

Real-time data on stream flow and water levels can be found at https://waterdata.usgs.gov.