Monday June 25, 2012

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Tensions in small towns downstream from New York City’s upstate Ashokan Res er voir have flared over water releases critics say are so muddy it makes a local creek look like chocolate milk.

The city has released water into the Lower Esopus Creek when the reservoir is particularly clouded with silt to help protect a water supply that serves 9 million people to the south. But many residents around the Esopus say the surges are killing fish, devaluing their property and ruining the creek. And plans being reviewed by state regulators to manage the releases have done little to ease concerns.

"It’s eroded my backyard, I’ve lost trees, it’s made the attractiveness of living on a pristine trout stream into looking at mud," said Bob Illjes, who lives on the creek in Hurley, N.Y. "It’s polluted the stream ... bass, trout, perch and sunnies -- they aren’t there anymore."

New York City officials who run the vast upstate reservoir system say they are attempting to balance the needs of people downstate who drink the water and of the upstate watershed residents. They note that a draft order being reviewed by the state also commits the city to help with flood control.

"We’re focused on trying to do things that are helpful to the community to the maximum extent possible," said Paul Rush, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection.

The water flow flap is the latest in a series of issues between the mostly tiny towns dotting the Catskill area and the big city that created the water supply system generations ago. In recent decades, New York City has taken extraordinary steps to avoid having to spend billions of dollars on a water filtration plant, striking a deal with local towns to limit development and purchasing tens of thousands of acres of land skirting the reservoirs.

The resulting land-use constraints have fed some resentment. When Ulster County Executive Mike Hein this year claimed the city DEP acts like an "occupying nation," he was echoing a common sentiment.

Concerns rose starting in 2010 after storms made the reservoir water especially turbid and the DEP made some releases into the Lower Esopus, which flows into the Hudson River. The state Dep art ment of Environ mental Conservation sought a $2.6 million fine against the city, but the state and the city have since reached tentative agreements aimed at solving the issue.

Under a draft consent order last month, the city would pay a civil penalty of up to $1.55 million, with $950,000 of that pledged to projects that would benefit the creek. The city also would commit $750,000 to projects to reduce turbidity on the Upper Esopus, which feeds the Ashokan, as part of larger goal to reduce the use of alum to keep the water clear.