In March of 2018, Gardiner residents living in the neighborhood of Tillson Lake received a letter from the director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) informing them that state agencies were taking steps to remove the leaky dam that has been holding in the waters of the Palmaghatt Kill since 1929. The letter cited a 2012 engineering report commissioned by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) that had determined the Tillson Lake Dam to be a Class “C” High Hazard. It also cited a pricetag of $5 to $9 million for repairing the dam. Removing it altogether, said PIPC, would only cost the state $1 to $2 million, not counting restoring the wetlands that would be left behind if the lake were drained.
Now those numbers have been recalculated, and there’s a better chance that Tillson Lake may be saved, thanks to an independent engineering study that OPHP commissioned from Schnabel Engineering. The new study, undertaken in response to a vigorous campaign of community activism organized by the group Friends of Tillson Lake (FoTL), used a different model for “passing flow” analysis to evaluate the adequacy of the existing spillway. It concluded that the capacity of the spillway does not need to be increased in order to meet passing flow requirements at the regulatory threshold of half Probable Maximum Flood (PMF). As a result, Schnabel estimated the costs of needed repairs for the dam at a much lower $3.2 million level. Subtracting the decommissioning costs, that leaves a much smaller amount of state funding to be identified and allocated in order to alleviate safety concerns without sacrificing a much-loved community resource.
The good news was announced on August 14 at a press conference at Tillson Lake, organized by the Friends group and featuring State Senate District 42 representative Jen Metzger and Gardiner town supervisor Marybeth Majestic. Introducing Metzger, FoTL president Morey Gottesman noted that she has been “key in contacting commissioners” during her first year in the State Legislature. “Now we’re just waiting for DEC to sign off on that report.”
Metzger promised that she was “going to stay on the DEC and the PIPC. We’ve got the study now, which really shows the value of second opinions.” Finding the funding for the repair project is a process that will get underway in the beginning of 2020, when legislators negotiate the next state budget. “They obviously have a budget for decommissioning dams,” she noted wryly. “There’s only about a one-million-dollar difference to be made up.”
FoTL’s “emphasis on science” in its grassroots organizing efforts, which engaged “very respected” analysts including Hudsonia and “drew attention to the ecological values” of Tillson Lake, was key to the success so far of the efforts to reframe the state’s view of the issue, according to Metzger. She noted that the lake is part of Minnewaska State Park Preserve, an “incredible recreational asset” whose future use is enshrined in the park’s Master Plan. “The state has a duty to protect these assets,” she argued. “We don’t have many lakes with public access. This is one of the only lakes around here where you can just put in a kayak, a canoe or a rowboat.”
Supervisor Majestic also praised the hard work and commitment of FoTL, who approached municipal leaders in both Gardiner and Shawangunk early on, seeking and winning their support. While the Gardiner Town Board immediately reached out to state legislators to urge preservation of Tillson Lake, Majestic termed the grassroots group “the best committee you could ever have.” “That partnership with the Town is so important,” Metzger added.
Gottesman explained that the Schnabel report, while still classifying the current state of the dam as hazardous, listed four different options for addressing the problem, including the more affordable upgrade scenario. Approval of the report by DEC is the next step necessary before PIPC can proceed with its decisionmaking process. Asked what citizens can do to influence the ultimate outcome at this stage, Metzger said, “Letters to the editor are very valuable. They put pressure on the Powers That Be to pay attention.”