Local officials and residents spoke about the environmental and economic impacts of the releases of water from the Ashokan Reservoir into the Lower Esopus Creek at a DEC public hearing on Thursday, February 4. The occasion was the publication of a long-anticipated draft environmental impact statement studying the downstream effects of the releases.
Perhaps helping to fuel the amount of commentary at last week’s hearing was the fact that several hundred million gallons of muddy water has been released daily into the creek since shortly after Christmas, when heavy rains caused water levels in the reservoir to rise. According to DEP spokesman Adam Bosch, these releases are part of a state requirement in order to keep the reservoir at no more than 90 percent capacity.
“We as stakeholders feel strongly we need to do better,” said Saugerties Town Supervisor Fred Costello at Thursday’s hearing, conducted remotely. “We have many important resources impacted by high rate of turbidity.”
Costello said visits to the Saugerties Lighthouse and business at the marinas are affected, as is an amphitheater in development.
Costello also noted the town and village of Saugerties purchased a machine for $90,000 to remove invasive milfoil and water chestnuts from the creek near the beach and asserted that the discharges make those problems worse.
“We need to know if this supercharged turbidity is going to impact the amount of nitrogen in the water,” he said.
Deputy County Executive Evelyn Wright was among many who called on the DEC to give an additional 90 days for review and comment.
“Tonight’s discussion sheds light on the need to extend discussions beyond watershed communities,” Wright said. “The choice of weeks on end of muddy water or flooding should not be the extent of our relationship.”
Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher said New York City needs to do more to work with the communities along the Ashokan Reservoir and Esopus Creek.
“I want New York City DEP and New York State DEC to be on notice [that] watershed communities are not made whole by the agreements of yesterday,” she said. “We are going to be needing more financial support.”
Esopus Supervisor Shannon Harris said the turbid water is affecting the town’s ability to keep the municipal water supply, which comes from the Esopus, within state compliance.
“We have noticed a direct correlation between turbidity (in the creek) and high turbidity in our intake valve,” she said. “Our operators are not given notice.”
The town must add chemicals to the water supply to keep turbidity within state limits, she said.
Gail Porter, who owns I Paddle New York, a kayak and paddleboat rental company in Saugerties, said the brown, muddy water has a drastic impact on her business.
“I’m more than a little angry at what is happening to the creek,” she said. “I’m not even sure of that sweet harbor seal will stick around by the lighthouse.”
She questioned whether the releases were the best solution, given the impact on communities downstream. People are hesitant to spend time on the creek when it is muddy, she said.
“When you harm the reputation of this creek it harms my business.”
Esopus Creek Conservancy President Leeanne Thornton said the releases pose a navigational hazard for kayakers and canoes and that certain species of turtles have all but disappeared from the shoreline.
Thornton said the creek looks like a chocolate fudgesicle.
“New York City must make alternative plans to provide safe drinking water but not at the expense of upstate communities,” Thornton said.
Van Bolle, who owns a home on the creek, said the city’s use of the Esopus as a waste channel is “unacceptable.” He said previous releases caused his septic system to fail and cost him thousands of dollars to remedy. He said he submitted receipts to the city for reimbursement.
“The creek becomes unsafe and unappealing and takes significant time to clear and reduce flow,” Bolle said. “The Esopus Creek is not a waste channel.”
Dave Haldeman of the Ulster County Environmental Management Council said it is not a new problem.
“With climate change it only seems to get worse,” he said, listing impacts including “degradation in quality and quantity of wildlife” and “extensive erosion and silting with these releases.”
Haldeman also noted the fiscal impact to towns and cities caused by the constant debris removal.
“Using the lower Esopus Creek as a dumping area for its turbid water is not being a good neighbor,” said Mary O’Donnell, chair of the Saugerties Conservation Advisory Commission.
She believes if the tables were turned, the city would certainly object.
“I was dumbfounded how at no point during the presentation was turbidity and the hot chocolate-looking Esopus Creek connected to extensive releases from Ashokan,” said Ulster County Legislator Brian Cahill, D-Town of Ulster. He echoed the calls of others for a 90-day extension on the comment period so people can digest the report.
The last time releases received this much public attention was also the last time the releases were this muddy: 2011-12, when Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused record flooding throughout the region and necessitated prolonged and heavy releases. At the time, drinking water quality for New York City residents was the concern; this time it’s water levels. Bosch, from the DEP, said the mandate to keep the reservoir at no more than 90 percent capacity is part of an agreement that came following the storms of 2011, and is intended as a proactive measure to prevent the reservoir from spilling into the creek at an uncontrolled rate, greater than the 600 million gallons per day maximum. (Presently, he said DEP is releasing about 350 million gallons per day.)
Bosch said the reservoir usually releases about 10-15 million gallons per day. It has needed to release higher amounts to maintain water levels in years past, however, the water wasn’t muddy, so they were not as noticeable.
Another public hearing will be held March 3. Written comments will be accepted until March 16 by mail addressed to Kristen Cady-Poulin, NYS DEC-Division of Environmental Permits, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-1750 or by emailing DEPPemitting@dec.ny.gov with NYCDEP SPDES in the subject line.
Information on how to attend the March 3 hearing via web conference will be posted in the February 10 Environmental Notice bulletin, available at dec.ny.gov.