Mayor Steve Noble said this week that the city’s Board of Water Commissioners would likely vote this week to begin laying the groundwork for raising the capacity of the Cooper Lake reservoir sometime in the future, rather than carry out improvements as part of an upcoming refurbishment of an aging dam at the site.
The Cooper Lake reservoir in Woodstock supplies the City of Kingston via a system of pipes, holding ponds and a water treatment plant. Under the terms of the 99-year lease agreement signed in 2004, the city also sells up to 700,000 gallons of water daily to the Town of Ulster.
In 2009, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued new engineering standards for some 241 dams in the state, including the one at Cooper Lake that retains water flowing into the reservoir from Mink Hollow. Currently, the water commission is weighing a plan to bring the dam into compliance with the new state regulations. The work is expected to include enlarging the dam’s spillway and rerouting pipes that currently run through the core of the structure off to the sides. The work is expected to cost $4.7 million.
“Our dam, while it is stable, doesn’t meet the factors of safety for today’s engineering standards,” said Kingston Water Superintendent Judith Hansen.
While the commission has committed to moving ahead with the refurbishment plan, they are also weighing a range of proposals to raise the reservoir’s capacity in conjunction with the project. Currently, Cooper Lake holds 1.2 billion gallons or one year’s supply, based on current use. Among the options weighed by the board are a proposal to raise the dike by 2.5 feet, increasing supply by another 30 days and raising the total cost of the project to $7 million, and another to raise it by five feet, adding 60 days capacity at a total cost of $9.7 million. A third option would simply raise the height on an intake tower that draws water from the reservoir into the pipeline. That would not increase capacity, but would make it cheaper and easier if a future board decided to raise the dike. That option, which Noble and Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III said was the most likely course, would bring the total cost of the refurbishment project to $5.7 million.
“The last time it was raised was 1927,” said Hansen. “And there has been lots of discussion about it in the intervening years.”
Hansen said much of the current discussion was driven by concerns about climate change. Climatologists believe that precipitation in the Catskills will increasingly come in short intense storms during the winter months, while summers will become drier. Raising capacity would enable the reservoir to capture more of the output of a compressed wet season, leaving more in reserve for the anticipated dry spells.
Noble, who sits on the Board of Water Commissioners, said that he supports increasing capacity at Cooper Lake. But, he said, concerns about climate change had to be balanced against maintaining the fiscal health of the water department which operates entirely on its own revenue outside of the municipal budget. Noble said that while the DEC had mandated the reworking of the dam, there was no state money available to help pay for it. In fact, Noble said, many DEC grant programs explicitly excluded dam projects from consideration. Based on cost considerations, Noble said, he supported raising the intake tower while adopting a wait and see approach to increasing capacity.
“That option allows us at some point in the future to relatively easily increase that capacity,” said Noble. “It could be soon, it could be a long time from now, we don’t know.”
Quigley, who attended the September meeting, said that he also favored the more modest improvement option. Quigley estimates that town residents provide up to 25 percent of the Kingston Water Department’s budget through a combination of ad valorem taxes and user fees. He said that simply complying with state-mandated improvements to city and town water infrastructure would push water rates up some 55 percent. Quigley added that the collapse in the face of strong community opposition of a proposal by Niagara Bottling to open a plant in the Town of Ulster using water purchased from Kingston had closed off a potential revenue stream to fund more extensive improvements at Cooper Lake.
“It’s certainly understandable wanting to increase storage capacity given the environmental concerns,” said Quigley, who called the more modest option favored by Noble “prudent.” “But what good is increasing storage capacity if we can’t use it for business?”
Woodstock does not draw water from Cooper Lake, but under the terms of the contract governing the reservoir retains the right to do so. Town Supervisor Tom McKenna attended the meeting and said that he supports raising capacity at Cooper Lake.
“Should some terrible drought befall us we would be looking to Cooper Lake for water so we do have an interest in that water supply,” said McKenna. “From my perspective [raising capacity] is good for Woodstock and I look forward to participating in the process and having a dialogue.”
The water commissioners are expected to meet on Friday, Oct. 13 to vote on which option to pursue.