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Esopus Creek is a world renowned rainbow trout stream that runs through the heart of the Catskill Mountains before emptying into the Hudson River near Kingston, NY. For more than a century, the surrounding hills and crystal clear water of Esopus Creek have provided the ideal backdrop for generations of fly fishermen. Since the 1920s, the Esopus has also played a critical role in the New York City drinking water supply system, funneling water from the Schoharie Reservoir into the Ashokan Reservoir, where the water then travels through a series of aqueducts before reaching the taps of New York City faucets. Unfortunately, the creek’s important function in the New York City water supply has also served as the death knell to the creek’s rainbow trout fishery.
Since the Schoharie Reservoir is not hooked up to a water supply aqueduct, New York City needed a way to get its water to the Ashokan Reservoir. In 1924, the city began operating the Shandaken Tunnel, which transfers water from the Schoharie 18 miles underground before it ends up in Esopus Creek. From there, it flows into the Ashokan and down to New York City. While this operation does not appear problematic on paper, the muddy discharges from the Shandaken Tunnel have all but decimated the Esopus rainbow trout population, and turned a once-pristine stream into a muddy river that locals now call “Yoo-hoo Creek.”
The red clay dirt from the Schoharie Reservoir often muddied Esopus Creek, but settled out in the Ashokan Reservoir before entering the water supply system. But in the mid 1990s, torrential rains and floods sent hillsides of silt and clay into the Schoharie, burying the Shandaken Tunnel’s intake pipe below mountains of dirt and sediment. Since then, a once-thriving recreational fishery continues to be buried in mud.
When two years of talks with state and city officials failed in 2001, Riverkeeper, Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Theodore Gordon Flyfishers, and other environmental groups filed a federal Clean Water Act citizen suit against New York City.