What happens when tree-huggers stop hugging trees long enough to engage in metaphorical fisticuffs with fellow environmentalists? The current battle over what should be done about the Tillson Lake Dam in the Town of Gardiner is proving an interesting test case of this scenario. Local activists have been mobilizing under the aegis of a new not-for-profit called Save Tillson Lake, seeking help from elected officials and endorsements for their cause from local and regional environmental organizations. But Hudson Riverkeeper isn’t playing along, the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance isn’t taking sides and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater is still pondering its position.
To recap, Gardinerites living in the immediate vicinity of Tillson Lake, which is fed and drained by the Palmaghatt Kill, received a “courtesy” letter in late March from Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) executive director James F. Hall, informing them that the agency was planning to decommission the dam that has been creating the lake since 1930. The reason given was safety to downstream homes, as some water seepage has been occurring at the base of the earthen dam, and the concrete splash pad of its spillway has deteriorated over time. Estimating that replacing the dam could cost from seven to nine million dollars, PIPC claimed that there was no funding in its budget available for the purpose. Instead, the agency proposes to “dewater” the lake and allow its bed to revert to natural stream corridor.
This plan does not sit well with lake neighbors, for whom the artificial lake is a cherished recreational resource (as well as a water source relied upon by the local volunteer fire company). Some of them even have deeded lake rights, and argue that their property values will plummet if the community’s greatest amenity is removed. Tillson Lake is a popular fishing destination, home to largemouth bass and brown trout, as well as a magnet for birders.
Last Saturday afternoon, Save Tillson Lake (STL) held its second general meeting at Gardiner Town Hall, once again drawing a large crowd of concerned citizens. Organizer Morey Gottesman updated attendees on the group’s successes so far, including resolutions from the Gardiner and Shawangunk Town Boards and letters of support from state and county legislators, as well as from congressman John Faso. A Save Tillson Lake Day drew good turnout; lawn signs are popping up and a letter-writing program is in progress. “We are clearly being heard by our elected officials,” Gottesman reported. “However, PIPC is proceeding with the project. They are now prepping the Environmental Assessment Form. We need help to determine the environmental value of the lake.”
To this end, STL has engaged an environmental lawyer, Dave Gordon, to represent the group, and a wetlands ecologist, Karen Schneller-McDonald, to prepare a wetland delineation analysis. According to Gordon, more than half of the 24-acre lake, on its western/upstream side, is designated as wetland in aerial photographs taken as part of the National Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory. An additional 3.7 acres of wetland at several points along the lake’s perimeter have been delineated and tagged by PIPC in the past couple of years, the attorney said.
As it happens, 12.5 acres of wetland is the size parameter beyond which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will add a parcel to its wetland maps and assume jurisdiction over it, which Gordon sees as STL’s most promising strategy. “Our goal is to get this designated state wetland,” he explained. “They would need a DEC wetlands permit to essentially destroy Tillson Lake. To destroy 16 acres of wetland is a big deal.” In cases where such a permit is issued, a developer is typically required by DEC to create a new wetland of equal or larger acreage elsewhere, he explained, which would greatly inflate the projected cost of removing the dam.
Gordon, who was a staff attorney for Riverkeeper for 14 years, was scathing in his assessment of that organization’s May 14 blog post by habitat restoration manager George Jackman, titled “Save the Palmaghatt Kill — Remove Tillson Lake Dam and Restore Natural Flow.” Jackman argued that “Removing the dam would give the Gunks back a bit more of the wildness we cherish, while also enhancing habitat for aquatic invertebrates and wild trout, many of which are threatened over much of their range by introduced species and habitat alterations.”
“From a philosophical perspective, it is a corruption of nature to deprive rivers of their natural flow of water and seasonal distribution cycles,” Jackman’s essay continued, adding, “many freshwater species maintain a high degree of uniqueness with limited environmental tolerances that makes them highly sensitive to change and the most imperiled group of organisms in the world…and thus by evolutionary fiat have been granted by nature inalienable rights to habitat that supersedes all other interests, including arbitrary human concepts and constructs.”
Gordon blasted this as an “alarmingly bad statement” that constitutes “almost environmental malpractice.” He recalled his work with Riverkeeper’s longtime lead attorney, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who, he said, espoused a philosophy that “We don’t protect fish for fish; we protect fish for people.” Gordon also took issue with Jackman’s broad generalizations about dams being “an ecological blight upon freshwater ecosystems” and his characterization of the Tillson Lake Dam, a prized community resource, as a “relic dam” and “obsolete.”
“They never looked at the local ecology,” Gordon complained. “They never even noticed or mentioned the phosphorus issue.” Contrary to the Riverkeeper position that keeping a stream free-flowing for the entirety of its length is essential to the transport of nutrients, STL contends that the Wallkill River, of which the Palmaghatt Kill is a tributary, is having major problems with excessive nutrients — especially phosphorus loading, a likely culprit in the Wallkill’s harmful algal blooms of recent years. “Dams typically sequester nutrients like phosphorus, because it binds to sediment,” he argued.
Gordon objected to Riverkeeper essentially equating a dam about 35 miles from the Hudson River, with a much taller dam in between at Sturgeon Pool, to another dam on the Wynantskill, a quarter-mile from the Hudson, whose removal enabled the return of alewives to their spawning ground. “Alewives are not going to swim up from Kingston to the Palmaghatt Kill,” he scoffed. This position found support from Manna Jo Greene, who was in the audience in her capacity as environmental director of Clearwater.
“I came to understand what the value of fish migration would be” if the Tillson Lake dam were eliminated, as well as “to see what the community is thinking,” she said. “There’s not going to be any substantial migration past the Sturgeon Pool Dam.” Moreover, noted Greene, a strong proponent of sustainable energy-generating alternatives, migration is blocked at Sturgeon Pool by one of Central Hudson’s most viable and productive hydroelectric power plants. She said that Clearwater was urging the DEC to map streams in the Hudson watershed in a way that distinguishes between their value for fish migration and for hydropower. Greene added that, in Clearwater’s view, “The rights of plants and animals are equal to the rights of people; they do not ‘supersede’ them.”
Next up in STL’s strategic plan is to bring in the highly respected ecologist Erik Kiviat of the not-for-profit environmental research institute Hudsonia to conduct further studies of Tillson Lake and arm the group with more thoroughly documented data. Fundraising will be necessary for the group to cover the costs of all these expert consultants. Beyond aiming for a DEC wetland designation for at least half the lake, STL is also questioning the high pricetag quoted by PIPC for restoration of the dam, and urging the agency to seek other sources of funding. “We’re absolutely prepared to be more than a NIMBY group,” averred Gottesman. “I told Jim Hall, we’re here to help you solve a problem.”