Bright sunshine, performances on the shore and brown water in the creek. The contrast made the point: A magnificent waterway spoiled by the dumping of silt from New York City’s Ashokan Reservoir.
The event, titled “Bless the Esopus; May its Waters Run Clear,” included a dramatization of DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] hearings on releases from New York reservoirs, short essays and poetry related to the river by local writers, blues/folk guitarist and singer Elly Wininger and a musical/dance performance led by Linda Montano, Celeste Graves and Sharon Penz that included the audience as participants.
The event was to highlight the need to protect the Esopus Creek; one reason it incorporated music, poetry and dance is that “artists respond with images and words and movement and sound that takes us out of our ordinary perceptions and shows us other ways of responding to events,” said Shout Out Saugerties executive director Suzanne Bennett. About a year ago, Shout Out Saugerties facilitated painter Angela Gaffney-Smith’s mural on the storage building at the Saugerties riverside. Gaffney-Smith titled her painting “Tranquility Trail,” but “the title seems a little incongruous right now with the state of the Esopus behind us.”
Following a song about the disappointment of a child seeing the beautiful creek running muddy and devoid of the wildlife that had surrounded it, The Reverend Charles Blauvelt of Trinity Episcopal Church said that since he moved into his home with a river view, “I have been looking at the Esopus since December with growing horror at the condition of the creek.” In his homily he asked for a blessing of the effort to protect the land and the water, especially the waters of the Esopus Creek.
A spoken drama followed, made up of testimony at a Department of Environmental Conservation hearing by area residents and statements by spokespeople from the New York Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) at hearings of March 3, 2021. “Muddy ditch, chocolate milk, turbid dirty water, mud bath, Gowanus Canal — these are descriptions of the creek since the New York City DEP once again released discharge from the Ashokan Reservoir.” In its initial study of the effects of its discharges, the DEP concluded “there are no adverse impacts anticipated to aquatic resources, wetlands and floodplain forests, swimming, fishing and boating, wildlife corridors or species or views of aesthetic resources within the lower Esopus Creek from continued releases.”
On the other hand, a player speaking Senator Michelle Hinchey’s testimony. said that “while we understand and fully support the need to mitigate flooding and to deliver clean water to our downstate communities, it cannot come at the cost of high turbidity for our local watershed communities.” Stan O’Dell, the chairman of the Saugerties Waterfront Advisory Board, said that from his waterfront home he observes the rise and fall of the water, he fishes and talks to fishermen. “Fishermen report that the fish are nonexistent during the releases. With the muddy water, the fish just disappear.” Other speakers identified other animal and bird species whose numbers have declined as the releases have increased. Actors also spoke the lines of the many scientists who testified as to the destruction of the fisheries in the Esopus and the damage to the nearby Hudson into which the Esopus flows. The statements of residents were interspersed with comments from the DEP denying any damage to the Esopus.
Following the reenactment, half a dozen area artists and poets recited poetry or spoke about their feelings for the river and its inspiration. Peter Vinogradov acted as master of ceremonies.
Elly Wininger started her set off with something the audience could sing along with, Van Morrison’s “Stone Me To My Soul,” with a chorus featuring the line “oh, the water,” then a classic style blues she wrote about boating.
Saugerties Supervisor Fred Costello introduced other local government officials at the festival — deputy supervisor Leeanne Thornton, mayor Bill Murphy and councilmen John Schoonmaker and Mike Ivino. The town and village governments have been very supportive of Shout Out Saugerties and “have been unanimous in opposing the dumping that’s happening and many of the other efforts and we finally got other towns on board,” said Costello. “For instance, the Town of Ulster has become active in opposing the releases. We’re going to meet with the DEP next Thursday, hopefully with a positive outcome.”
While the current releases may be legal under the existing agreements, “we all know it’s wrong,” he said. “There’s better we can achieve if we all raise our voices together. We can get better quality water and we can stop persistent muddy water. This could not happen in the natural environment.”
The creek has been precious to the people of Saugerties, Costello said. “This is an important resource and it deserves to be protected for all of us to enjoy and to share. It’s important to think about the habitat that’s here as well. “I’m glad you’re all with us, I’m glad you’re here. Please stay active. This isn’t over, and we have a long way to go. If we stick together and keep this fight going, we can reach a higher ground.”
In introducing Rebecca Martin of Riverkeeper, Costello said Riverkeeper has been a strong partner in the effort to protect the environment. “To have them with us today says so much and their consistent resources and support, science and all the rest of it — we couldn’t do it without this partner.”
Martin is the director of community partnerships at Riverkeeper, “where we have been working on the Ashokan releases and impacts on the Esopus Creek for more than a decade. I wouldn’t have missed today to be with you.”
Martin brought materials to get the Town of Saugerties engaged in the environmental review, the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). “This is a unique opportunity for municipalities. It’s meant to be used to help the public elected officials to think through their decisions for any major project that comes under SEQRA.
“Back in December, after the massive storm that occurred and the Ashokan releases really began again, the Department of Environmental Protection also released their draft environmental impact statement. Typically, there’s a 30-day window for public comment and with the help of Riverkeeper and their partners including Scenic Hudson, Woodstock Land Conservancy, the Catskill Mountain Keeper, Hudson Valley Farm Hub, we requested a 90-day public comment period and received it,” said Martin.
“The public comment period is now open to June 16, giving community members a unique opportunity to engage on the environmental impact statement and comment on it. River Keeper has created really good materials to help communities to take the important action of giving public comments and telling New York City to take a hard look at the alternatives that they have presented.”
Martin noted that since the Hudson River provides drinking water for more than a hundred-thousand people and the aspects of climate change have not been looked at in the Environmental Impact Statement. “We can ask the DEP to provide a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.”
Martin offered packets that included sign reading #StopTheMud and sample letters and statements that can be sent to the DEP.
Riverkeeper will be hosting a webinar on May 5 featuring the organization’s scientists, legal team, local officials and more. Information can be found at riverkeeper.org/stopthemud.
Martin’s comments were followed by a participatory dance number led by Linda Montano, Celeste Graves, with Sharon Penz on cello.
The final event was the showing of signs that volunteers had been painting throughout the day. The creators brought their work to the river’s edge for a group photograph.