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Scope of review issued for study of NYC’s releases to Lower Esopus Creek

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Lower Esopus Creek as it enters the Hudson, Google Maps, 2011
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The Department of Environmental Conservation has issued the final scope of review for the study that will examine the impacts of New York City’s high-volume, muddy discharges from the Ashokan Reservoir to the Lower Esopus Creek. The discharges turned the Lower Esopus “Yoo-hoo brown” for months in 2010 following a tropical storm, forcing the shutdown of local beaches and harming the boating, fishing and recreation industries depended upon by local communities.

Lower Esopus Creek as it enters the Hudson, Google Maps, 2011

Technically speaking, the study will cover the city’s proposal to modify its “Catalum SPDES Permit,” which authorizes the city to treat water with alum to reduce suspended sediments as it enters the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County. The proposed modification would also authorize high-volume releases of turbid, muddy water from the Ashokan Reservoir more than 80 miles away in Ulster County. While Riverkeeper continues to believe the two operations should be regulated separately, the scope of the study nevertheless begins the first ever comprehensive examination of the impacts that future releases from the Ashokan Reservoir will have on the Esopus.

In 2014, Riverkeeper and partner municipal and Ulster County officials, in conjunction with other affected stakeholders, commented on a draft of the scope. In response, the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) made a number of important changes to the study. For instance, DEC expanded the area of review to cover the entire length of the 32.5-mile Lower Esopus and broadened its consideration of alternatives to include number of potentially beneficial modifications to Ashokan Reservoir operations, such as blending of cleaner water to reduce turbidity and lowering the storage levels to allow for more flexibility.

That said, the scope is far from perfect. We are particularly concerned that the review will not examine documented past impacts of releases on Lower Esopus Creek; instead, the study will consider as its baseline the ongoing releases that have caused severe harm to Lower Esopus communities. Nor will the study mandate an outcome in which all future discharges comply with state water quality standards or ensure any necessary variances from those standards comply with state and federal requirements.

With these concerns in mind, Riverkeeper will continue to engage in what we hope will be a constructive process with New York City, DEC, and many other Lower Esopus community partners to ensure the study thoroughly informs any future reservoir releases. We are committed to ensuring that all options remain on the table and that DEC selects the best possible alternative that allows the city to continue providing pristine drinking water to 9 million consumers without treating the Lower Esopus as a dumping ground.

Under the terms of a Consent Order, we expect the first draft of the study will be available by September 22, 2018, but it is possible that the draft will be postponed to incorporate findings of a separate, independent expert panel review of the “Operations Support Tool” that the city uses to estimate water quality and quantity and determine when to transfer water between reservoirs.

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