NYC reservoir releases raise concerns about a stormier future

New York City has been accused of sometimes releasing hundreds and millions of gallons per day from a Catskill Mountain reservoir, as western regions struggle with dry conditions.

NYC reservoir releases raise concerns about a stormier future

These occasional releases have been used to control the Ashokan Reservoir's water level and keep it clear during storms. Residents downstream claim that the occasional surges can cause ecological damage along the Esopus Creek. Residents claim that the high flows cause the water to turn the Hudson River tributary into chocolate milk.

Michael Vallarella, a Saugerties resident, said that "these people can afford New York City cheap and clean water by destroying ours." He stood on his back deck and scanned photos on his phone showing the water as if it was "Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory river."

Tensions between residents of upstate and 8.8 million inhabitants to the south concern how the country's largest unfiltered water supply will function in an uncertain future. Recent state regulators gave the city a mandate to examine the effects of water releases and provided support for opponents.

Officials from the city say they are trying to find the right balance between responding to downstream concerns and delivering high-quality water.

Paul Rush, deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, stated that if there were an easy solution to all of this that would satisfy all of our concerns, we would be happy to do so. But this is a very difficult problem.

The Ashokan Reservoir is located 80 miles (130 km) north of Manhattan. It is the second-largest of the city's 19 reservoirs. It was built more than 100 years ago by damming Esopus Creek. This displaced low-lying communities, and sowed long-lasting local resentments about issues such as watershed land-use restrictions.

Interim rules that allow large water release -- up to 600,000,000 gallons per day -- from Ashokan via a channel linking to the lower Esopus are the current topic of controversy.

The channel, which was largely dormant from 2006 to 2006, helps to regulate the reservoir levels and prevent flooding downstream. It has also been used to remove water that is turbid, or cloudy with suspended particles, before it travels south to city taps.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has granted permission to the city to continue making these releases and smaller daily releases to maintain the creek's flow. Opponents want changes.

Due to the silty water that flows in, turbidity can cause problems with Ashokan water. The reservoir was created to allow suspended particles to settle in a western basin, before moving into an eastern basin. Sometimes more is needed. Although the city used chemical alum to reduce its turbidity, it was forced to stop using it in 2005.

Although the city claims that larger Ashokan releases in the last decade have been done to control reservoir levels, critics claim that the water released following storms can still be turbid.

Officials from the city's environmental department claim they are too blamed for the murkiness of the lower creek. However, it flows in from other sources. According to the agency's environmental analysis, the releases would have no adverse effects on the lower Esopus.

Critics argue that the frequent high-volume, prolonged releases of toxic substances erode banks and deposits, as well as harm fish habitats along the 33-mile Hudson River tributary. Many residents feel that the city is not held to the same standards as those living near their reservoirs.

Amanda LaValle, deputy Director of the Ulster County Planning Department, stated that there is a different way of operating the City of New York's watershed lands and streams that drain into the reservoir than the downstream system.

As extreme storms become more frequent, locals worry that major releases will increase. They point out the December 2020 large storm and snow melting that occurred before major releases. During this time, the lower Esopus was often brown. Seven municipalities that get their drinking water from Hudson River claimed those releases have taxed the water filtration systems.

Officials from the city acknowledged that the storm releases had an effect, but stated that the creek was turbid before the releases began.

This pair of water releases occurred shortly after the city released its environmental impact statement, which stated that extremely turbid water would not be released from the channel often.

Mary McNamara, Lower Esopus Watershed Partnership, stated that "the 2020 storm struck and it contradicted them projections." "That is why people claim their climate change projections don't seem aggressive enough," said Mary McNamara of the Lower Esopus Watershed Partnership.

The storm was cited by state environmental regulators who ordered the city to conduct a supplemental environmental assessment this year. The city must examine the impacts of the releases on Hudson River water supplies to determine if more climate change analysis is required.

Although there is less snow, the city has already predicted that a 5% increase of precipitation will be possible by midcentury. Rush, from the city's environmental protection department, stated that the expectation of more precipitation combined with dry spells is "a huge challenge."

He stated that the city is open for adjustments to how the Ashokan operates, noting that they already have the flexibility of relying on two other upstate watersheds. When construction of a tunnel under Hudson River begins, the city is allowed to use alum. However, the temporary disconnection from the aqueduct that serves the Delaware watershed neighboring will be required. Rush suggested that alum could be used as a long-term solution.

Officials from the Upstate say that the releases could be modified in order to add more water or increase the daily flow to prevent dramatic increases in the water running down the creek. Engineering solutions such as crest gates, which would increase the Ashokan's capacity in its western basin, are also included in the mix.

LaValle stated, "We are looking for ways to work together."


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